A decade of slipping: Michigan's students fall behind

Michigan is falling behind other states in preparing its teenagers for college, a trend that could hobble the state’s efforts to revitalize its economy.

The percentage of Michigan high school graduates going to college has been inching upward, from 57.5 percent in 1992 to 59.4 percent in 2008, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. But many other states are increasing their college enrollment at a faster clip. Mississippi increased its college-going rate 16 percentage points; Minnesota shot up 15 percentage points; New Jersey, 11 percentage points.

Michigan dropped from having the 13th-highest rate of college enrollment in 1992, to 25th in 2000, to 34th in 2008, the most recent year available.

That lagging performance continues once Michigan kids get to college. The percentage of students who enroll in a public or private four-year university and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years (54.8 percent in 2009) is rising, but at a much slower pace than in most states. The state’s rank has fallen from 16th to 26th in a decade.

(Gov. Rick Snyder’s education dashboard shows a slightly higher six-year graduation rate, because the state data only includes graduation rates of Michigan’s 15 public universities.)

The story is even worse at Michigan’s community colleges. They rank 44th in the nation in the percentage of students earning an associate’s degree within three years. One in five Michigan students earned an associate’s degree in three years in 1999; A decade later, with more jobs requiring a degree, only one in six earned an associate’s.

At a time when a college education is practically a prerequisite to the middle class, the state-by-state data offers a sobering view of Michigan’s efforts to increase the percentage of residents holding a degree.

"If that trend sustains over time,” warns Larry Good, president of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, “we’ll continue on a path to becoming a poorer state.”

Experts: state must improve, or else

Michigan lost about 800,000 jobs in the past decade. A Bridge Magazine analysis projected that seven out of 10 jobs added to the Michigan economy between 2008 and 2018 will require some post-high school education. More than 37 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 29 percent today.

Yet the state has made bafflingly little progress increasing college readiness and attainment. The chances of a Michigan ninth-grader entering college by age 19 increased 1.5 percentage points between 1992 and 2008 -- one-quarter of the national rate of increase. By contrast, South Carolina increased 12 percentage points; Ohio, 9 percentage points; Indiana, 8 percentage points.

"There’s a tremendous economic loss in productivity and potential creation of jobs,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust Midwest, an Ann Arbor-based research and advocacy group. “But there’s also a loss of human potential. We’ve got kids not realizing the full potential of their talent. It’s tragic when talented young people don’t get a chance to pursue their dreams.”

In 2008, about 42 percent of ninth-graders enrolled in college by age 19, ranking the state 34th in the nation (it was 22nd in 1992). The national leader was North Dakota, at 59 percent.

It’s as if Michigan is traveling on a freeway at 20 miles per hour, with other states zooming past at 70. And those other states are Michigan’s competition for new business and jobs, which tend to move to states with higher levels of education.

“There’s a direct correlation between educational attainment and good-paying jobs,” Good said. “If Michigan is moving slower, it puts us at a disadvantage.”

Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, says the rankings are indicative policy and culture. “We’ve gone through at least a decade in which policymakers have chosen tax cuts over education as a priority,” said Glazer, whose group pushes for a greater focus on higher education. “I don’t see the current Legislature making (education) a higher priority.

“Culture matters in this, too,” Glazer added. “Michigan is still one of the places having the hardest time embracing an understanding that economic success is increasingly driven by a college degree.”

Good believes it is more difficult to “move the needle” on college attainment today because many baby boomers with college degrees are nearing retirement. “Thirty years ago, most of the people who were retiring didn’t have a college degree,” Good said. “Now, (more) do. So you not only have to replace them, but you have to increase the number with college degrees. We can’t keep moving up the educational attainment rate unless we do something extraordinary.”

That can only happen with greater college readiness.

Compared to other states, Michigan schools have a less coordinated answer as to what being “college ready” means, and how to measure it, Arellano said.

Good agreed, pointing to states such as Illinois, Minnesota and Oklahoma, where leaders had made college readiness the centerpiece of economic programs.

“If I look at Midwestern states that are (increasing college attainment), in every state, there is a major commitment from the governor to the colleges,” Good said. “In Illinois, the lieutenant governor runs the effort. We’re behind the curve because we aren’t focusing on this as an economic imperative like other states.”

“We are definitely advocates of putting more money into things we know work,” Arellano said. “But it’s not always about money. It’s mostly a matter of policy and leadership.”

Arellano points to Massachusetts as a state where “They’ve made really wise decisions. Their kids really benefit.”

Massachusetts has among the highest standardized test scores in the nation, along with high college enrollment and degree attainment. But next-door neighbor Ohio also has made huge strides, passing Michigan in college enrollment and degree attainment in the past decade.

“Michigan has had just as many blue ribbon papers as any other state, but we haven’t seen the policy commitment,” Good said. “No one’s arguing it’s not important,” Good said, “but nobody is pulling it all together.”

“Just because it’s not happening here,” Arellano said, “doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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Tue, 05/01/2012 - 9:41am
With those dismal numbers, you have to wonder if college students are taking the easier route, to welfare when the job market is so bad. We have raised a generation of kids where they were taught there are no winners and losers. Everybody gets to play no matter how skilled or practiced. Now faced with real world competition, they are ill-prepared for the challenges of life and still believe there are no losers. Somebody will take care of me. It's not my fault. We need to instill responsibility and accountability in our youth, talants that are rare in our adults. With strong desire to achieve, you learn from failure but have the tenacity to keep going. The harder the struggle, the greater the reward. Free & easy has no value.
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 1:11pm
I've never heard members of the "greatest generation" criticize their parents for standing in bread lines during the Great Depression or working on government funded programs that built parks, roads and other public works. Why? Because there was no private sector work whether you were an accountant or a farm hand. Today a college education is probably worth what a high school education was worth then. It provided the basic skills and certification. My mother at that time had her college scholarship money dry up at the same time her mother died and the farm was lost to creditors. We are in a downturn longer than the Great Depression with 60% of college graduates unemployed or underemployed in an unrelated field. Everyone cannot all be in the top percent of computer engineering or medicine especially when America imports both unskilled (illegal) and skilled professionals from around the world (India, Philippines, Malaysia etc.) who are tops in their field. Propaganda is everywhere. The notion that Michigan has 70,000 unfilled jobs due to unskilled graduates is untrue otherwise companies would be hiring and training people to fill these ranks regardless and there would be a hiring boom which there is not. As we graduate more willing and able college graduates that have sacrificed financially to obtain their degree, but have nothing to offer them, we will be eventually entering our own Arab Spring. There are winners and losers in global economies on every level. Now it's America's fate as our nation's wealthy shift money around the world and our college graduates become the new victims. When these young people stop blaming themselves because of the dieing myth of work hard and get an education and you will be rewarded, we will see a more equitable America formed or a class war that the Occupy Wall Street protests are a mild precursor of.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 10:18am
Human evolution has not taken a sharp nosedive. Humans are producing, proportionally, the same ratio of bright/dim bulbs as we ever did. What we're doing is diluting the college pool by sending too doggone many of our offspring to four-year institutions, when most should be in community college, learning career-specific skills (and perhaps--a big perhaps--some entry-level core classes). If we want to raise the general level of maturity of our young people, the best thing we could do for all 18 year old kids would be to enact a mandatory two-year national service program (after a short physical training program, opt for civilian or military flavor, but even the civilian track is run along military lines). Enact a new G.I. bill; two years of service equals two years tuition at a community college. And if colleges want a higher-quality college student, they'll have to drop the silly open-admissions policies--that's for community colleges. Next, they'll have to shrink their business to fit the number of kids who actually belong in 4-year institutions, which at most is about a third of high school grads. Universities have been on a growth binge for 20 years and it's about time they did some right-sizing.
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 11:20am
The problem I have with this article, and the entire series of articles the Bridge is publishing today, is that it assumes that you can 'give' a student an education. Wrong, the student has to 'take' it. Our state, and society in general, has devalued education. I went to school with all sorts of kids who did not think much of school, the "when am I ever going to use this" crowd. Well, they are serving me my burgers now or worse, collecting unemployment, at my expense. I do blame the unions some on this, as they helped create the culture where education was not valued. The 'when am i going to use this" crowd had parents who worked in factories and they were doing well, so why should their kid have to study in school when they are going to work at GM when they graduate. See how well that worked out. Education starts at home, and all the early education programs (which I do favor) and increasing funding will not work until the families of our children create a culture of education at home. Yes, very complex thing to achieve. Tough problems rarely have simple answers.
Ron French
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 9:26am
Robert I have to respectfully disagree with your takeaway from this series. Students in other states are going to college at a faster clip, and graduating at a higher rate. I for one do not believe Michigan kids are dumber or less motivated than kids in other states. To me, that thinking is comparable to a hypothetical situation in which death rates at our hospitals are higher than in most other states, and Michigan policy makers throwing up their hands and saying, 'I guess Michigan residents are sicker than people in other states." People are people. If people in different states are getting different academic results, I believe it's not only fair, but necessary, to look at what we can do to catch up. Thanks for reading
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 9:12am
In the states that are doing better than Michigan, has anyone looked at the correlation between state funding of public colleges and universities? Michigan continues to reduce aid to the colleges and universities; thus, pushing the burden to the parents/students. If we look at the Michigan parent/student burden of college tuition as a percentage of the total funding, how does Michigan stack up? Maybe it is just to much of a burden to get through community college in three years or a public univiversity in six if the student has to work full/part time to stay in college to pay the tuition.