The numbers are clear: Michigan’s economy would improve if more adults had college degrees.
People with college degrees make, on average, about a million dollars more in their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma. Those extra dollars are spent in restaurants and stores, creating more jobs. People who make more money pay more taxes, giving state government more cash for roads and schools.
That’s not to say everyone must, or should, go to college, not in a state that has openings in skilled trades and where some still can earn a steady income with training after high school. But that doesn’t change the numbers showing that, broadly speaking, college-educated adults earn more.
The simple answer would seem to be getting more high school grads onto college campuses. But an analysis of 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates another, less talked-about solution: convincing more adults from other states and countries to move to Michigan.
Let’s start with where Michigan adults stand in college attainment compared with residents of other states.
How does Michigan stack up in college degrees?
Michigan is in the bottom third of states in college degree attainment, with 28.3 percent of all residents aged 25 or older holding at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with a national average of 31.3 percent. That comparatively low college attainment level hobbles the state’s ability to attract businesses, like the second headquarters of Amazon, and the earning potential of families.
Here’s how that plays out: In Minnesota, nearly 35 percent of adults hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher. While Michigan’s median household income was $5,000 below the national average of $57,627 in 2016, Minnesota’s was nearly $8,000 higher.
If Michigan had the same college grad rate as Minnesota, the state would have 439,000 more adults with a degree than it does now.
Why has Michigan fallen behind? Among the reasons, there’s one you probably didn’t come up with. Consider this map:
Native Michiganders are average in degree attainment
The percentage of adults born in Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree or higher isn’t exactly eye-popping, but it is at least average for the nation. With a quarter of native Michiganders holding a Bachelor’s degree or higher, the Wolverine State ranks 25th.
If Michigan is doing at least an average job of getting diplomas into the hands of its native-born, why is the state’s overall rank in the bottom third of all states? Look at this map:
Movers are better educated than natives
People who move to Michigan from other states tend to be more educated than native-born Michiganders. That’s typical in the U.S. – people with more education generally have more job opportunities allowing them to move from state to state. In Michigan, 34 percent of adults who were born in other states have a degree. That’s a lower rate than most states – we rank 31st in college attainment of people born in other states. But it’s a better rate than our native-born residents. There is, however, a third group that has an even higher rate of college attainment, as shown in this next map:
Michigan immigrants are state’s most educated group
Those neighbors from India and Syria and China? They are even more likely to be college educated. Four-in-10 adult immigrants who’ve settled in Michigan have a bachelor’s degree or higher – the ninth-best rate in the country. So if our native Michiganders are average in college attainment and our non-natives are more educated than our natives, why is our overall rank so low? This next chart explains.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Michigan ranks 49th in the percentage of adults who were born elsewhere, either in another state or another country. That’s a problem for our economy, because people who move across state (or international) borders are typically more educated than native residents. So while Michigan’s first-generation residents are more likely to have degrees than people born here, there just aren’t enough of them, compared with the flow of people moving into other states.
Since the 1990s, Michigan has continued to lose residents to other states; more than 800,000 more people have left the state than come to it since 2000. And since movers between states are more likely to have a college degree, their absence can hurt, said demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social research who has studied migration. “(Michigan is) in a part of the country that’s typically not growing much from migration,” Frey said.
Consider Georgia and North Carolina: both have a native population with lower degree rates than Michigan (22.2 and 21.2 percent, respectively, compared to Michigan’s 25.2 percent). But the overall college attainment rate of each state is higher (30.5 and 30.4 percent, compared to 28.3 percent for Michigan). Why? More than half the residents of Georgia and North Carolina were born elsewhere – and 40 percent of them arrived with college degrees.
The bad news for Michigan: Migration away from snow belt states looks to be picking up to places like North Carolina – which would lead more people piling in a moving van out of the state.
Kurt Metzger, current mayor of Pleasant Ridge in Oakland County and former data guru at Data Driven Detroit, was blunt in his assessment of the data: “We don’t need to encourage kids to go to college,” Metzger said. “Those who should will go. We need others to go to community college and pursue technical training or vocational programs.
“Our efforts should be geared toward keeping our best graduates - particularly U-M, MSU, LTU and Michigan Tech, and encouraging college graduates (from elsewhere) to move here.”
Michigan has the lowest percentage in the nation of non-home-grown residents between the ages of 25-34, and second-lowest between the ages of 35-44. “What does this say about our ability to attract (new residents)?” Metzger asked.
What would draw more college grads to Michigan? Metzger makes a few recommendations:
- The importance of vibrant cities. “We are now at a point in time where we have two strong urban centers that are proving themselves attractive to young graduates ‒ Grand Rapids and Detroit,” Metzger said. “Their continued strength, built around their interests, is important for attraction and retention. Efforts must be made to build momentum in other urban cores in Lansing, Kalamazoo (and) Bay City,” for example.
- More high-paying jobs. “The evolution of automotive and technology industries in Michigan is critical to keeping and attracting engineers, programmers, etc.” Metzger said.
- Internships. Metzger suggests universities and employers collaborate to create more internship opportunities for home-grown college grads and to attract others from outside the state’s borders. “Quicken (Loans, based in Detroit) and others have shown success with summer programs, but we need much more across the state,” Metzger said. “Working with an employer while in school will increase the possibility of that student staying after graduation."