Ready for college? In Michigan, likely not.

If you live in Michigan, your high-schooler is probably less prepared for college than the average American student. Your teen has only an average chance of graduating from high school, and a below-average chance of enrolling in college. And if your son or daughter makes it to campus, he or she is less likely to earn a degree than their out-of-state Facebook friends.

When it comes to preparing our kids for college, Michigan schools are losing the readiness race to dozens of states, including most of our neighbors.

An analysis of Michigan college readiness data by Bridge Magazine and Public Sector Consultants reveals a troubling track record. Almost half of the state’s public school districts score poorly in at least one measure of college preparation. The share of Michigan teens enrolling in college and earning degrees is barely budging. Tens of thousands are taking high school-level courses in college and dropping out even before becoming sophomores.

“If we don’t change,” warns Larry Good, chairman of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce in Ann Arbor, “Michigan is going to be a poorer state.”

Little college = little dollars

Increasing college readiness is vital. Seven out of 10 jobs added to the Michigan economy between 2008 and 2018 will require some post-high school education, according to a Bridge analysis of job projections. By 2018, more than 37 percent of jobs are projected to require a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 29 percent today.

“For families, college is the only reliable path to the middle class,” says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, a group advocating for advanced learning. “High college attainment rates raise everybody’s wages; if you’re a construction worker or a waiter, and you live in a high college attainment area, your wages are higher, too.”

It’s a mantra repeated by business leaders and politicians of all stripes. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm championed the Cherry Commission report that laid out the economic necessity for increased college readiness. Gov. Rick Snyder chimed in last summer, saying, "Michigan's future, in large part will depend upon the readiness of our students to enter a career or college with the educational foundation needed to succeed and have a strong quality of life.”

To gauge how Michigan is faring, Bridge examined public school district-level data measuring ACT college readiness, Michigan Merit Exam proficiency, graduation rates and the percentage of high school graduates who require remedial (high school-level) courses when they enroll in college.

See how your district measures up in college readiness.

The results were sobering:

* Six out of seven Michigan school districts have fewer graduates deemed “college ready” than the national average, when measured by the ACT standard of being fully college ready.

* Only 39 percent were deemed proficient in all subject areas of the Michigan Merit Exam taken by juniors last spring.

* Of those who go on to Michigan public colleges, 35 percent take at least one remedial course, and 27 percent (more than 21,000 students in 2008-09) drop out before their sophomore year.

This is not just a crisis of Detroit, or urban centers. Districts ranging from poor urban to rich suburban to tiny rural have spotty track records for college readiness. Of the state’s 515 public school districts with complete data, 256 districts (49 percent) were in the bottom quarter of scores in at least one of Bridge’s college readiness measures.

Forty districts were in the bottom-quarter of Michigan schools in all four measures of college readiness, including urban (Pontiac), suburban (Ferndale) and small town (Wolverine) districts. 

Even top-rated districts serving affluent families have chinks in their academic armor. One in five Birmingham graduates take remedial courses in college to make up for high school deficiencies. In Grosse Pointe, just 38 percent of grads are considered “college ready” by their scores on the ACT. In Ann Arbor, one in six don’t graduate from high school.

“Neither Michigan nor the country has done well” preparing students for college, said William Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University. “It’s our children’s futures that are being held hostage. It’s economically stupid and it’s morally questionable.”

“I’m troubled because the system doesn’t make it easy to (attain) college readiness,” says State School Superintendent Mike Flanagan. The “system” Flanagan blames goes far beyond high school classrooms and local school board meetings. He theorizes the state’s college readiness problem starts while kids are still watching “Sesame Street.”

“We don’t fund early childhood (education),” Flanagan said. “We spend about a billion dollars a year on grades K through 12, and we spend hardly anything when the brain is being developed. Early childhood really will transfer to college readiness.”

Flanagan has seen data that links third-grade reading proficiency with college readiness. “If kids aren’t reading on grade level at third grade, the odds are they aren’t going to be college ready,” he said. “To me, the only way they’re going to get third grade reading proficiency is to have a robust early childhood program for every child.”

Schmidt blames lenient cut-off scores -- the scores that split proficiency from non-proficiency -- on the state’s MEAP tests for poor readiness. In the past, those cut-off scores allowed districts to earn deceptively high proficiency rates. “Michigan’s curriculum standards were of high quality,” says Schmidt, a university distinguished professor of statistics who was instrumental in developing the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). “But they set a cut point that was so low, it effectively mitigated the high standards.”

And those cut scores were set for political reasons, claims Schmidt, to make it appear Michigan schools were making more progress than they actually were. (The cut scores were raised significantly in 2011.)

Flanagan also thinks teacher-training programs at Michigan colleges share responsibility. “If you give me better-prepared teachers, I’ll give you better-prepared (college) freshmen,” he said.

The state’s new curriculum standards, put into place five years ago, eventually will increase college readiness by adding “clarity” to what should be taught at each grade level, Flanagan said. “You can’t teach the solar system every year because you like it. Districts now know the content expectations for each grade.”

It’ll be another eight years, though, for the first class to have gone through the new curriculum from kindergarten to graduation. Schmidt, who helped benchmark the new curriculum, said he hopes the state has the “political will” to maintain college readiness efforts that won’t show immediate results.

“It’s a cycle -- from early childhood education to core curriculum to better-prepared teachers -- and it takes time,” Flanagan said. “And some states kicked into gear earlier than us.

“Inching forward is disappointing in some ways,” Flanagan says, “but it’s on its way.”

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Don Grimes
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 9:01am
This is an excellent and well documented news report. It should be widely distributed. One possible cause of the poor performance of our college-bound students, which was not mentioned in the article, is "egalitarian" education. Historically college-bound students were "tracked" into more academically rigorous college preparatory classes. This process was eliminated a few years ago in an effort to "equalize" educational opportunity, but did this result in a lower knowledge level for children who eventually ended up applying/attending colleges? Should we once again adopt some sort of "tracking" method in our public schools?
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 9:06am
Any system that relies more on testing of factual knowledge than development of procedural knowledge is doing our children a grave disservice. Mr. Flanagan, I'm simply not impressed.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 10:15am
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.
Nancy Shiffler
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 12:06pm
When you read the studies provided by ACT to describe how they determined "college ready" you end up with a lot less confidence about what that term means, especially for science and math. The numbers of students used for those two subject areas are smaller and the certainty of the predictions are much lower. To assume you have to be above the 80th percentile on the ACT to be college ready is a bit of a stretch. This doesn't mean college readiness isn't an issue, but to base it on a set of test scores is questionable.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 3:57pm
Here we go again, the same old nostrums, whines and complaints. lets tinker some more around the edges, more rigor here, some content over there, another regimen of testing, core curriculum for everyone, discipline, higher standards, work harder, etc., etc., etc.. Would you please listen to yourselves. Or is it just too hard for the academics and layers of politicians and pundits to realize that they are the problem. Teachers and students, these are the individuals that do the work of learning and as long as those that believe they know what's best for this group continue to dictate the how, when , where, and what learning will struggle to emerge. Equality of opportunity is a key ingredient. It simply does not exist in this state. Continual preparation and skills upgrades with large opportunities for collaboration for teachers by teachers (needs identified and delivered by teachers for teachers). Isolation of academic disciplines must end. The Carnegie unit and age grading must end. Cease the movement to one uniform standard, curriculum and assessment immediately. (If you don't recognize diversity as the key to progress in all that we do as a species you are definitely not qualified to be involved in educational matters0. Encourage experimentation and collaboration everywhere. Create opportunities for those that do the work to communicate with one another within and beyond the artificiality of district boundaries. Flip the school funding equation - capital needs for infrastructure becomes a state responsibility, operating funding a local responsibility means evaluated to identify where financial supports are needed to insure an equal amount of dollars are available for each students education. Insure the need for 20J districts ends immediately. We can see if a building is falling down or unsafe and go after Lansing to fix it. Less tangible assessments, "Is my child learning?" is an up close and personal question that only the teacher and the child can answer that eludes the objective certainty desired by bureaucrats and financial types. Those at the top of the hierarchy must begin to serve those at the bottom and stop dictating solutions to problems the hierarchy created. Get the legislature out of the classroom and let those that do the work do the work. Let teachers teach and children learn and remove immediately anyone and anything from the process that interferes with children learning.
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 9:15pm
This is a disappointed article, it ignores the most important player is the whole edcuation system and the preperation for college. The STUDENT. It talks about scores, it talks about curriculum, about teachers, and what all but never talks about the student and they role they play in this whole process. The old adage may really apply here, 'yuo can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.' Until we try to understand why some kids want to learn and are will to make the sacrifices to learn and kids do care about learning and why they won't sacrifice to learn then all others things we talk about are on the fringes and will not change the knowledge and skills of the kids, will not prepare them for college, and will not help them be competetive in getting a job. Not every one has a 'great' teacher in K-12, not eveyone had insprational parents, not everyone fall in with the crowd that wants to learn and succeed. And yet many of them do succeed, and they succeed in spite of all the failings this are infers. When will Mr. French and his ilk actually go past the prepackaged news releases and personla agendas and look at how students work, and what it rakes to succeed in school. I dare to suggest that learning is about persistance, it is about sacrifice, it is about expectations, it is about reinformcement, it is about making edcuation personal. When have we heard that reported on by The Bridge, by the Educators, by the legislators, about anyone other then those who are actually succeeding with the kids. If there are handful of kids that succeed in the poorest situation this article alludes to then there is the story for those kids prove the author and all others wrong. If there are a handful of kids best situation that all the reporting is directed toward and they fail to learn then they have proved the author and all he is quoting wrong. The real story is who and how the students that break the means the author, The Bridge and all those 'experts' claim to be need for kids to succeed.
Wed, 05/02/2012 - 8:55am
Missing from this article and from virtually every discussion about education reform is the most important factor in student achievement: THE STUDENT. I have been teaching at a community college for 16 years and have been in the profession for more than 20 with stints at the United States Military Academy and at the University of Michigan, and the level of student commitment I see to their education is at an all-time low, and it has been declining for some time. Lack of class attendance, playing with electronic devices in class, failure to complete even the most rudimentary assignments, and total lack of intellectual curiosity are all too frequent behaviors of the modern college student. And I cannot help but believe that teachers in the K-12 system are seeing the same behaviors and yet they are being held accountable for the laziness and apathy of their students. And, yes, such students ought not be promoted and ought not graduate. Yeah, right. One can only imagine what might happen if any K-12 system actually held back large numbers of students or refused to allow them to graduate because they have not done the necessary work, because they have not exhibited the necessary knowledge, or because had not displayed the necessary skills. Does anyone doubt that the schools and the teachers would be blamed for the students' failures and those of their families? Until "education reformers" actually attempt to understand and to address the student motivation, they're just blowing smoke
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 8:43pm
As long as it is about blame, it will be the teachers, money, and administations. It may event get to the politicians. The reality is that the kids, that so few are willing to make responsible for anything, determine if the learn or not.