Report: To be among the most educated, Michigan needs to invest

Lansing State Journal

LANSING - Michigan lags the rest of the country in educational attainment. A group of policy experts, lawmakers, educators and business leaders wants that to change. Tuesday, they made the case that the state should invest in putting itself on par with the 10 most-educated states.

“We have to up our game across the board,” John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education and the representative for the Michigan Postsecondary Credential Attainment Workgroup, told officials today at the Capitol.

The group was releasing a report that calls on Michigan to set a goal of 60 percent of its population having some sort of post-secondary credential, the same benchmark being promoted by the Lumina Foundation, one of the sponsors of the report. That would require 64,000 additional associate degrees, 231,000 new bachelor's degrees and more than 45,000 more advanced degrees over the next 10 years, not to mention more than 400,000 new occupational credentials or certifications, the report states.

But making those leaps in the next decade may be more difficult than improvements in previous decades, said Don Heller, dean of the MSU College of Education.

“To reach the goal, we have to ramp up on getting students who are more challenging to educate through to degrees or other credentials,” he wrote in an email.

In order to reach the Lumina Foundation’s goal, Heller said, the annual growth rate in educational attainment would have to double, according to his calculations.

Today, those who don’t have degrees are in that position because of a number of complex factors, he said, including poor academic preparation, financial need and a lack of support while attending college.

About a quarter of Michigan adults in the workforce have taken some college classes but haven’t earned a credential, Austin said, and it’s a population officials will have to tailor to.

The report, called “Reaching for Opportunity,” also lays out where Michigan ranks in education spending. The state is 43rd in the nation for appropriations per student, and 41st in the nation in financial aid.

It doesn’t offer specific prescriptions for raising that or paying for its recommendations.

Austin said rolling back the more than $400 million in cuts to education funding made during the past decade and a half would go a long way toward achieving the group’s goal. And some relatively small investments, such as adding more college credit-attainable courses in high schools and hiring more guidance counselors, would pay significant dividends.

“Education is even more important for our economy moving forward than roads,” Austin said.

If funding can be found for roads, he said, it likely could be found for these initiatives as well.

And not every new degree has to be an expensive one, said Mark Cosgrove, dean of Lansing Community College’s Technical Careers Division.

Students enrolled in LCC’s two-year aviation technology program not only pay less for their education than their university counterparts, but they find themselves sought by employers even before passing their certification, he said. The roughly $20,000 cost to attend the six-semester program nets certified mechanics in the neighborhood of $40,000 starting salary, as well as employment opportunities around the world.

After six years in the Air Force as a jet engine specialist, Matt Grant returned to Michigan and enrolled in the LCC program. When he finishes the program, he wants to work for L-C Aerospace Systems, working on planes and coordinating test flights.

“I think aerospace is definitely better than any other field I’ve worked in,” he said, adding that he’s optimistic about his prospects after being certified.

The job market for new college graduates is the best it’s been since before the recession. But at the same time, the amount of student debt here has increased by 48 percent in the last four years, according to a report released in February by Business Leaders for Michigan.

Dan DeGrow, Superintendent of St. Clair County RESA and the chairperson of the Michigan College Access Network’s Board of Directors, says in order to help alleviate anxiety among today's students, it is necessary to have more counselors deployed within Michigan high schools, assisting with federal aid applications.

MCAN, in collaboration with universities including Michigan State and the University of Michigan, has worked more than 100 recent graduates in high schools across the state to do just that, he said.

Contact RJ Wolcott at (517) 377-1026 or rwolcott@lsj.com.