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Bridge Michigan
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Opinion | State higher ed investment must lead to innovation, student supports

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders negotiate the state budget, our system of higher education faces two critical challenges within an environment already defined by declining enrollment and an increased need to reach nontraditional learners. Those institutional leaders who recognize and meet these realities head on will be at a tremendous advantage in the emerging postsecondary landscape.

Ben Frederick
State Rep. Ben Frederick, R- Owosso, serves as Majority Floor Leader in the Michigan House of Representatives and is Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges. (Courtesy photo)

First is the challenge presented by out-of-state online entities, which are gaining an ever-growing share of graduates by providing compelling pathways at a lower cost and often in a shorter time period. Hundreds of thousands of credentials have been awarded in recent years that carry the same accreditation and industry recognition as their on-ground equivalents. Beyond the conveniences offered by online delivery, this success is being achieved in large measure through marketing campaigns sensitive to the concerns of adult learners, maximized credit for prior learning which honors a student’s life experience, and customizable options for acceleration.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019, fully online programs accounted for nearly one in five students enrolled. This number has certainly increased in the years since. In-state institutions should embrace what lessons they can from this delivery method while celebrating the distinct advantages on-ground and blended experiences offer by fostering a dynamic and inviting campus culture, offering distinctions in program offerings, and providing robust student support.

Existing online campuses within institutions should likewise be constantly challenging their models to ensure no undue barriers are placed in front of students looking to complete their credential efficiently. Michigan-based institutions should engage in this arena with confidence as enrollment in beloved local institutions remains highly desired by most students as long as learning paths compete in flexibility, affordability, and efficiency.

The second challenge facing higher education is the potential of the business community creating its own education offerings rather than continuing to navigate the overly bureaucratic structures which still define some corners within higher education. While still largely preferring engagement with traditional higher education partners, companies can and will make the investments necessary to grow their talent pipelines with or without institutional support. This is already evident in the explosion of in-house industry skills training and private sector grow-your-own initiatives.

Higher education institutions can respond to this reality by embracing the discussion around unrolling degrees into stackable and portable micro-credentials while building incremental career pathways with employers. Such pathways offer tremendous motivation as job-relevant skills milestones, badges and credentials are accrued along the path to a degree.

Higher education faces a critical inflection point that comes with tremendous opportunities. Whatever the outcome of state budget negotiations, initial proposals already point to the near certainty of unprecedented state investments. Operational support through direct appropriation, debt paydown, creation of baseline funding levels and large infusions of financial aid are all on the table. If stewarded wisely and with clarity regarding the challenges faced, these investments will afford Michigan’s leaders in higher education the best opportunity in decades to chart a sustainable course forward and realize the programmatic shifts which are urgently needed.

Our state’s future depends on Michigan’s storied institutions of higher learning recognizing this moment and striving to ensure the maximum outcome for every student and employer in Michigan.

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 Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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