A solution to Michigan’s college graduation problem: Start sooner

Students at college graduation

Early middle college programs may be one answer to boosting the state’s college-attainment numbers.

Michigan, we’ve got a problem.  

Today’s job market requires advanced skills and training – especially if you’re looking for a good-paying position that can support a family.

David Dugger

David Dugger is executive director of the Washtenaw Education Options Consortium and president of Middle College Consultants.

Too many Michiganders don’t make the grade. Sixty-two percent of Michigan high school students enroll in a two- or four-year college – but just 38 percent graduate. We’re way behind the top-10 performing states when it comes to educational attainment.

An undereducated workforce is a drag on Michigan’s economy. Employers locate where they can find a skilled workforce. If they can’t find it here, they’ll go elsewhere.

Once upon a time, you could graduate high school on a Friday, punch into a factory on Monday, and count on a good living for years to come. These days, that’s a fairy tale. A high school diploma just won’t cut it if you’re looking for work in a growing field like nursing, engineering or information technology.  And modern manufacturing jobs with good pay and job security – like welding and skilled trades – also require advanced training.

This story can have a happy ending, with a proven strategy for helping students better prepare for college and the work world. It’s called Early Middle College (EMC)– and Michigan is one of the nation’s leaders in developing these innovative programs.

It’s a deceptively simple idea. Start college sooner, while kids are still in high school. Allow them to dual enroll, earning credit toward high school graduation and college courses at the same time. Focus on acquiring skills at a student’s own pace, instead of time-based learning which moves them ahead whether they’re ready or not.

Most important, Early Middle Colleges focus on the process of creating self-sustaining learners rather than the content of academic subjects. So graduates are ready to tackle the learning requirements of college from day one.

They’re also better prepared to handle the high cost of higher education. Fees for college credits earned by EMC students are typically paid by their home school district. That means a student can graduate with up to 60 college credits without paying a dime in tuition.

Michigan’s first EMC, a partnership between Mott Community College and the Genesee Intermediate School District, opened in 1991. I helped launch two others – the Washtenaw Technical Middle College in 1997 and the Early College Alliance (ECA) at Eastern Michigan University in 2007.

I’m also a consultant to other school districts working on EMCs, so I’m obviously a strong proponent of these programs. But don’t take my word for it. Successful outcomes at the first EMCs, in Michigan and elsewhere, helped win support from philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. EMC programs are now up and running in more than 100 Michigan communities, serving some 5,000 students.

Fortunately, we haven’t taken a cookie-cutter approach. Early Middle Colleges in Michigan are tailored to the school districts and community partners where they are located.  

Some target at-risk students, who might not make it through high school without enhanced learning opportunities. Others, like Henry Ford Early College in Dearborn, are linked to job opportunities at a nearby employer – in this case, the Henry Ford Health System. At ECA, our partnership with Eastern Michigan University is a good fit for students aiming at a four-year college degree.

What do EMCs have in common? We all emphasize what we call “soft skills,” like note taking, test preparation, organizational abilities and time management. These academic behaviors are less essential in high school, where teachers monitor your work and intervene if you’re falling behind. Once you hit college, however, you’re on your own. And you’ll be in the soup pretty soon without the independent study habits and life management skills required to take tests, write papers and negotiate your way through college.

At ECA, 50.6 percent of our graduates get four-year college diplomas within four years. That doesn’t sound very high, but it compares well with students from well-regarded high schools like Grosse Pointe South (32.2 percent) or East Grand Rapids (28.5 percent.) Many resource-challenged districts do significantly worse.

In 2015, Michigan set an ambitious goal: Sixty percent of working-age adults with a two or four-year degree, occupational certificate or apprenticeship by 2025. That’s a long way from where we are now. Early Middle Colleges can be an important tool to help us get there. At the same time, we can reduce the high cost of college for students and families.

Our existing K-12 system just isn’t working for too many Michigan students. That’s why so many districts are trying something different – with positive signs of steady, measurable progress.

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Sun, 02/12/2017 - 3:10am

This story is full of unchecked facts. My daughter graduated from high school in the 1980's, and did exactly what this article advocates. Our high school had partnered with a local community college, provided tuition and transportation for those students attending, and the students obtained some number of transferable credits. After attending U of M for 8 years and getting her PhD in engineering, she had to move out of state to find a job. Twenty years later, she still lives out of state. My son also obtained two degrees from U of M, a BA and a BS, and two degrees from Wayne State, an MBA and a law degree, and he too had to move out of state. The employers in Michigan would rather hire a foreign worker who they can pay a lower wage to.

John Saari
Sun, 02/12/2017 - 9:31am

Degrees should not be the goal. Move K-12 to the colleges. Gov must pay for min education/training, healthcare, food and housing.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 02/12/2017 - 9:10pm

This article doesn't provide much information. If these programs have been around that long, and have been as effective as Mr. Dugger says, why haven't we heard more about them? And why haven't they been substantially expanded? He says, "At ECA, 50.6 percent of our graduates get four-year college diplomas within four years." What percentage of enrollees graduated?

David Dugger
Wed, 02/15/2017 - 1:14pm

I hopes of furthering the dialogue as the author of this column I would refer you to the following links:
http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/EMC_High_Schools__Programs_in_Mich... - A fairly up-to-date list of MI's EMC programs. The vast majority of these programs have been developed since 2007. Governor Snyder and Governor Granholm have both cited EMC programs as the wave of the future during their State of the State Addresses.

Also, to answer Michigan Observer's question about the percentage of enrollees graduated? I am assuming he/she is referring to the ECA @ EMU and if that is the question then 89% of the ECA students who attend the ECA complete the ECA program. A high school attrition rate that typical of EMC programs.