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Opinion | Making the case for Michigan’s regional public universities

No community in Michigan is the same.

Traverse City has its stunning bay. Detroit offers a re-energized and vibrant downtown. Marquette is a dream for outdoor enthusiasts. And Grand Rapids is an arts destination.

headshots side by side
Domenico Grasso is chancellor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz is president at Oakland University.

All these unique characteristics make our state an attractive and exceptional place to live and work. Equally importantly, one-of-a-kind environments provide Michiganders with impressive choices for a college education.

Our state’s regional public universities, or RPUs — places like Grand Valley State, Northern Michigan University, Saginaw Valley State, Central Michigan, Lake Superior State and the campuses we know best — the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Oakland University — offer a deep connection to place that benefit students, local communities and the state’s economic well-being.

As places of higher learning dedicated to the public good, Michigan’s RPUs share many of the same goals, especially when it comes to fulfilling missions as stewards of place, actively engaged in the education, public health, culture and economies of our local communities. What sets apart RPUs is what winemakers call terroir — the local demographics, culture, economy and climate that give each of our campuses a unique character.

Earlier this summer, our institutions joined the Brookings Institution and several other RPUs from across the nation for a Regional Public Universities Roundtable, hosted at UM-Flint. At the gathering, Brookings shared a compelling finding: Children growing up in counties with a regional public university achieve higher educations and better social and economic outcomes than those who are not fortunate enough to be co-located.

Michigan has 12 regional public universities, touching all corners of the state. They play a fundamental role in helping to achieve the goal of increasing the number of working-age adults with a college degree or skill certificate to 60 percent by 2030. That means being laser-focused on the success of our students, the majority of whom come from Michigan and will remain here after graduation, contributing to our economy, neighborhoods and collective future.

We are committed to being accessible and affordable as part of our mission to promote and facilitate upward mobility. Because of financial aid, debt-reduction initiatives and programs such as the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, students are in a position to graduate with either less debt compared to non-RPU students or no debt.

Nationally, RPUs educate nearly 60 percent of African American students and 44 percent of Latino students. According to a recent study, the average family income of students whose first-choice institution is an RPU is about $80,000, compared with $105,000 for those whose first choice is a public flagship. RPUs also educate more nontraditional students than elite universities or flagships. We fulfill a mission to provide a practical and broad-based education imbuing our students with skills for a fulfilling life and career and powering our economy.

Locally, 70 percent of UM-Dearborn students come from surrounding Wayne County and it is the “hometown university” for one of the largest Middle Eastern and North African communities in the U.S. Similarly, Oakland University attracts about 90 percent of its students from the adjacent Oakland and Macomb counties. This is in line with national trends: nearly 60 percent of first year students at four-year public colleges attend institutions within 50 miles of their home.

At a time when affirmative action and diversity in higher education are under attack, RPUs continue to educate students from a broad range of backgrounds, serving large numbers of Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students and students of color..

Capitalizing on the concept of terroir, RPUs are responsive to local needs because we are at the heart of our communities. Consequently, we design our teaching and service and engage in research based on the needs and ethos of our communities. Furthermore, RPUs contribute in essential ways to educate the Michigan workforce, build diverse communities, and train tomorrow’s practitioners and leaders. A great majority of our graduates remain in the community and contribute to the success of the local economies.

We are grateful to the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for increasing funding for higher education. And we are committed to building vital partnerships with corporations, foundations and other philanthropists who believe in the transformative impact of higher education to deliver long-term dividends that improve the quality of life in our communities.

A stronger Michigan is rooted in thriving regional public universities.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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