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Sink or swim: Higher education is key to Michigan’s future

It’s the kind of study that conjures visions of a Michigan flush with opportunity one day soon. And, if its findings are accurate, it’s a study that warns that doing nothing could ensure Michigan’s decline as a place to live and work.

Michigan needs an additional 779,000 students to earn an education or training credential beyond high school by 2025 to meet the needs of employers and place Michigan among nation’s 10 best educated states, according to a report issued by a coalition of business, education, labor and government leaders.

The price of this investment: more than $500 million a year.

To achieve that education goal, the study, “Reaching for Opportunity: An action plan to increase Michigan’s postsecondary credential attainment,” argues that Michigan needs to raise the number of residents with college degrees or technical certificates from 46 percent today to 60 percent in 10 years.

Scour through the 64-page report ‒ produced with input from the state’s colleges, universities, business, labor and philanthropic leaders ‒ and what emerges is a stark vision of Michigan’s low educational attainment and job prospects for the future compared with other states. Michigan currently ranks 38th in the nation in personal income and has seen real income fall over the past decade, the report says.

“This is about the most important agenda for Michigan’s economy and people,” said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education and facilitator of the Michigan Postsecondary Credential Attainment Workgroup, which produced the report. “We have to do this or we’re going to be a less prosperous state with diminished opportunity for people.”

More than decade after the release of a similar report by the state-appointed Cherry Commission, a bipartisan group seeking to promote postsecondary credentials along with the state economy, the workgroup was formed in 2014 to build on that work.

Among the groups collaborating on the report are Business Leaders for Michigan, the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education and the governor’s office, Talent 2025, the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations and the Michigan College Access Network. A full of members is on the right.

The findings of the workgroup study, released this month, also mirror many of the sentiments and priorities of more than 5,000 Michiganders surveyed this year by the nonpartisan Center for Michigan, Bridge’s parent organization. In the center’s report, “Getting to Work," residents stressed the need for more state investment in higher education and workforce training initiatives, improved counseling services offered to college-bound students, and better alignment between postsecondary education and training opportunities and the needs of Michigan employers.

The workgroup “Reaching for Opportunity” report recommends that government, the public schools, colleges and businesses work together to:

  • Create a marketing campaign and a one-stop web portal that provides postsecondary education guidance to students.
  • Raise the number of high school counselors and college advisers, and their training.
  • Triple the number of students in effective early college and career technical education credit-earning programs.
  • Increase and simplify need-based financial aid from the state, and the packaging of existing workforce resources for working adults.
  • Streamline the process for transferring credits from community colleges to four-year universities
  • Find ways to increase graduation rates for vulnerable students

To get to 60 percent of state residents with postsecondary credentials by 2025, 439,000 more students than currently projected will need to earn technical certificates and industry-recognized certifications, 64,000 more will need to earn associate degrees, 232,000 more will need to get bachelor’s degrees and 45,000 more graduate will need to get degrees by 2025, the report states.
Currently, several efforts ‒ some disconnected ‒ are underway to encourage more students to seek a degree or credential after high school. For example, Michigan community colleges and universities have adopted the Michigan Transfer agreement to help students earn the credits they need to transfer from two- to four-year degree programs.

A better-educated population will come at a higher cost to the state budget.

The report recommends that the state spend nearly five times as much on need-based financial aid than it currently does annually, from $105 million to $480 million a year. The $480 million could provide a minimum, need-based award to students at any Michigan public or independent college, university or community college, the report recommends.

Today, Michigan ranks 41st in the nation in the amount it provides for financial aid, and has the sixth highest tuition rate. Student debt in Michigan has increased by 48 percent in the last four years, making Michigan’s average student loan debt the 7th highest in the nation. Despite the debt, Michigan is below national averages for post-secondary degree and certificate attainment.

Getting the state to spend $480 million a year on financial aid ‒ in addition to the report’s recommendations to increase funding to public higher education institutions annually ‒ could be a politically difficult task, especially with the legislature still figuring out how to fund $600 million in roads fixes.

The report suggests increasing the recommended investments “over time.”

“Increasing education and training beyond high school is vital to grow our economy,” Tim Sowton, vice president, government affairs and public policy with Business Leaders for Michigan, a workgroup member, said in a statement. “Our members are concerned about a shortage of trained talent at all levels in our state. This report lays out an important roadmap toward increasing that talent pool.”

Overall, the report seeks to recommend ways Michigan can get more efficiencies out of its current public schools, higher education and workforce development investments while suggesting new investments that will catapult Michigan to the top.

“We have to be more efficient and effective to save the taxpayer and the individual’s dollar while making the strategic investments that pay the highest dividends in credential attainment,” Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, a workgroup member and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s higher education subcommittee, said in a statement.

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