After Amazon, Michigan needs more students educated beyond high school

Michigan is at a crossroads, and Detroit’s failed Amazon bid should serve as a wake-up call.

The message from Amazon to Michigan was clear — our state needs to prioritize talent. Even more sobering? Detroit and Grand Rapids didn’t even make the short list of 20 finalists for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The need to increase postsecondary attainment in Michigan — meaning increasing the number of residents who hold degrees or certificates— has never been clearer. The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) has been working to increase Michigan’s college readiness, participation and completion rates. We work closely with communities across the state to provide educational supports for all students, but especially low-income students, those who would be the first in their family to go to college and students of color.

Brandy Johnson is executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit focused on increasing college enrollment, particularly for students who are low-income, first-generation college students or students of color.

We have our work cut out for us. For the seventh year in a row, Michigan’s postsecondary educational attainment rate has increased — from 35.7 percent of 25-to-64-year-olds possessing at least an associate degree in 2008, to 39.4 percent in 2015. Additionally, it is estimated another 4 percent of Michiganders have a high-quality certificate, bringing Michigan’s official attainment rate to 43.4 percent. This still lags behind the national average. According to the Lumina Foundation, the average percentage of the national workforce with a degree after high school is 44.8 percent.  

And the states that are on the list of finalists? Their attainment rate doesn’t just meet the national average, but exceeds it. According to the Stronger Nation report by the Lumina Foundation, Colorado and Massachusetts have a college attainment rate of 54.7 percent and 55.2 percent, respectively.

The reality is, postsecondary education builds the talent that helps Michigan rise. If Michigan truly wants to invest in talent, then we must increase the number of students who pursue education after high school.

MCAN aims to lower the barriers to postsecondary education for Michigan students. We want students to understand that opportunities are available and people are there to help them navigate the often intimidating process of getting into college.

This includes assistance with how to apply for colleges and universities, complete financial aid applications and work to better understand various nuances of the college application process. In some instances, colleges will waive an application fee based on the family income of a student. This is one small example of leg up that students need to know in order to level the playing field.

I was proud to serve on the 21st Century Education Commission. Together, we released a report that provides the framework for Michigan’s education system to better prepare students for a global economy.

The report outlined several ambitious college attainment goals:

  • By 2025, 70 percent or more of our 25-year-olds will have completed a college degree, occupational certificate, apprenticeship or formal skill training.
  • Eliminate the equity gap at the college enrollment level: By 2025, the high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment gap between low-income and middle-income children in Michigan will have disappeared.

MCAN’s ultimate goal is to bring the college-going rate in Michigan to 60 percent and we’re concentrating our efforts across the state to transform that goal into a reality. We’re employing various strategies to reach this goal, including investing in college advisers, training school counselors and advocating for policy reforms that lower barriers for students.

We recognize what works for one community may not be a good fit for another. To address the unique needs of students and where they live, we establish “Local College Access Networks,” (LCANs). Our LCANs are local collaboratives working to build a “college-going” culture for their residents. The members of our LCANs include leaders from K-12, higher education, business, philanthropy, nonprofit organizations and government.  LCANs use data to identify and address the community’s highest needs.

In addition to investing in local communities, we also work to train and empower the professionals who work directly with Michigan students and families. We created the AdviseMI program, an innovative initiative that trains and places recent college graduates directly in schools that have low college-going rates so they can help students navigate the college-going process. We also advocate for policy reforms to strengthen requirements for school counselors and offer significant professional development opportunities to amplify the work counselors do every day to help students. Since 2013, we’ve provided extensive postsecondary training to hundreds of school counselors across the state.

A family’s income or zip code should not dictate whether a student pursues education after high school. MCAN is committed to sending a message to every single student that they are college material.

If Michigan policymakers want to establish the state as a driving force in the national economy, we must work to close the educational attainment gap. Michigan residents need the 21st-Century skills necessary to compete in the global market economy. Without the necessary skills and the needed talent, the Great Lakes State will continue to miss the short list.

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Tue, 02/20/2018 - 7:45am

As they say, to a carpenter, the answer to every problem is a nail. To put it more broadly the key to future prosperity is TRAINING, very little of which is gained through our typical current higher education.

Mary Pat
Tue, 02/20/2018 - 9:40am

I agree students need to be prepared for future needs and many of them need help working towards that goal. However, not all of them should be pushed to attend college or universities. Many would rather get training in a trade and I'd like to see that stressed in discussions. Parents aren't told that a trade is a good career goal even when it is evident the students want that, so they push their students to college thinking they have to do this.

Diane Emling
Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:12pm

Michigan produces a very high number of college graduates, who leave the state due to lack of professional opportunities here. The problem is not that we are not producing enough college grads. The problem is we can't retain them. Where to break into the circle?

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 3:32pm

It is good you have a plan to increase the rate of grads from higher education, but the problem is so much more complex than that.
1. First of all, Michigan's elementary and secondary education has not been well funded or have they used creative educational methods for years. The current state and federal administration focus on cutting taxes for business and to allow influential families in this state to influence politicians to reallocate funding to charter schools which has contributed to the poor performance of these schools.
2. The lack of cooperation among the 3 large counties in the metro Detroit area is a poor reflection of the leadership of all of these counties. This very myopic approach lacks vision and insight and is well known nationally.
3. The cost of higher education has become so prohibitive that the makeup of the current MI population just can't afford it. I have seen the methods used over the years enticing students to take on so much debt and then end up without jobs for years. There are many lending agencies out there with unregulated practices who impact vulnerable students. This is a huge systems problem.
4. Retention of students is another problem. Many of my friends have kids and grand kids who graduate from college and plan on leaving for another state due to lack of opportunity here and the quality of life in Michigan.
5. Michigan needs new leadership who has both the experience and insight as to what makes a great state.