Now is the time to double down on college access and attainment — Michigan’s future depends on it
A version of this blog post was published in the The Detroit News
As you can imagine, the team at Michigan College Access Network reads a lot of news about higher education. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; the news isn’t good. In recent months, we’ve learned enrollment has dropped at several regional public universities as they compete against flagship schools for a diminishing number of college-going students. We’ve learned not enough metro Detroit students are going to college, which will have long lasting implications in a job market already struggling to find enough qualified workers. We’ve learned that over 1 million fewer students are attending college across the nation, largely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic instability.
MCAN has been working for over a decade to improve college attainment in our state, and for most of that time, we saw steady progress toward that goal. When we started MCAN in 2010, Michigan’s attainment rate was just 36.4%. By 2019, that number had risen to 44.8%. That same year, when Governor Whitmer announced the statewide goal of Sixty by 30 — 60 percent of Michigan adults holding a college degree or certificate by 2030 — we aligned our work with that goal. We knew it would be a steep climb. Estimates at the time showed that we would need to add 40,000 new college graduates a year to hit 60 percent. This was the landscape we were looking at when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every level of education and fully broke an already leaky high school-to-college pipeline.
So where do we go from here? Sixty by 30 is a bold goal, but it wasn’t chosen for the sake of boldness. It was chosen because that is what Michigan needs to be a prosperous state that can compete in a knowledge-based economy. Manufacturing, the backbone of our state’s economy for decades, is rapidly changing as automation and artificial intelligence are projected to eliminate thousands of jobs for people who have no more than a high school diploma. State of Michigan reports show that 40 out of 50 high-demand, high-wage careers require at least an associate degree or certificate. While national politicians and pundits question the value of college, the data continue to show that on average, those with a certificate or associate degree earn $300,000-$400,000 more over the course of their lifetime than those with just a high school diploma, and that number jumps to $1.2 million for those who hold a 4-year degree. In Michigan, nearly 80% of high-wage jobs (over $64,240 per year) require a bachelor degree or higher. There are benefits to the wider community as well. Increasing college attainment not only leads to stronger local economies, it also decreases reliance on public assistance programs, reduces crime and incarceration rates, and leads to increased civic involvement. We can’t afford to abandon this goal. For the sake of future generations, now is the time to double down on Sixty by 30.
MCAN’s 2022-24 strategic plan expands the scope of our work to improve college access and attainment for all Michiganders. The Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect scholarships have shown an incredible hunger from folks across the state who want to improve their economic opportunities by pursuing an affordable education at our community colleges. We’ve launched College Completion Corps, which places AmeriCorps members on campuses to help students persist and complete their degrees or certificates. We’re also launching new efforts that bring together business and education leaders to find opportunities for partnerships and ensure schools are offering training that has maximum value in the workforce. We created the MI ECHO Scholarship to help DACA recipients and other students who fall through the cracks of federal financial aid programs.
We recently hosted a College Access Advocacy Day, where over 87 participants from all over Michigan met with 76 state legislators to make the case for bold investments in higher education. Michigan has a once-in-a-generation chance to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to help adults who stopped out come back to finish college and to take aggressive steps to re-engage the “lost classes” of 2020, 2021, and 2022 who delayed or dropped their college plans due to the pandemic. With budget negotiations ramping up, now is the time to contact your state legislators and encourage them to increase funding for college access programs and financial aid.
It’s time to pull out all the stops. We need to engage Michiganders at every stage of life to reach the Sixty by 30 goal. The future of our state depends on it.