Commentary: Why Michigan’s education crisis is a disaster for our economic future

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In 2010, as Michigan emerged from a decade of economic turmoil that wiped out 800,000 jobs, Georgia and Michigan had the same percentage of adults with a college degree or certificate — 36%.

Kentucky had only 30% of its adults with a college degree or certificate for in-demand jobs, while Tennessee’s post-secondary school pass rate hovered around 32%.

In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the educational paths of many people, Michigan’s college degree/certificate graduation rate had risen to 47% for adults over the age of 25. Same for Tennessee.

But Kentucky and Georgia passed us by.

In a decade, Kentucky has gone from 30% to 49% and Georgia has gone from tying Michigan’s 36% to 53% of its adults with some college degree.

Jeff Donofrio, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, offered this sobering assessment Monday at a Detroit Economic Club luncheon: Kentucky and Georgia have a better-educated workforce than Michigan and Tennessee. is about to overtake us in the knowledge economy any day now.

Later in the meeting, Walbridge Chairman John Rakolta Jr. shouted from a table outside the MotorCity Casino ballroom, “Is our hair still on fire?

“No, it’s not,” Donofrio replied evenly.

“What will it take to set our hair on fire because as a country and as a state we never do anything until the absolute last moment and you know well that this vehicle revolution electric – if we wait until our hair is on fire – it’s ‘it will be over,’ said Rakolta, whose Detroit-based construction company builds electric vehicle factories for Ford Motor Co. in Tennessee and Lucid Engines and Nikola Motor Co. in Arizona.

Donofrio said Lansing policymakers aren’t focusing on systemic issues plaguing Michigan’s education system, which ranks 41st in the nation for high school graduation rates.

“We are not a very successful state – we are at the bottom,” Donofrio said. “…It will take a coalition of people coming together to say, ‘Enough’.”

After two decades of divestment or stagnation in taxpayer support for higher education, signs of change are emerging on Capitol Hill.

Some lawmakers are beginning to recognize that southern and southwestern states are not just attracting new manufacturing investment, they are also beginning to take off elements of research and development in the rapidly changing automotive industry. which is the bread-and-butter of metro Detroit’s upper middle class.

Electric pickup truck maker Rivian Automotive Inc. moved its headquarters from Plymouth to Irvine, Calif., in June 2020. General Motors Co.’s self-driving vehicle development unit Cruise LLC was founded in San Francisco – and n showed no signs of leaving the Bay Area.

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Kim LaSata has proposed a new state scholarship program to attend any public or private college in the state, starting with the class of 2022 that will be graduating from Michigan high schools within weeks. coming.

LaSata’s plan would provide a scholarship of $6,000 a year to attend a public university or private four-year college or $3,000 a year to cover community college tuition for two years.

The new “last dollar” scholarship would cover what federal financial aid does not cover for students from middle to upper class families.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU), Lansing’s advocacy group for Michigan’s 15 public universities.

This is a game-changer because Michigan ranks last in America in state taxpayer-backed financial aid to cover the cost of college, making the path to earning power increasingly inaccessible. higher from a bachelor’s degree.

Michigan’s current competitive scholarship is far from competitive with other states, providing approximately $1,000 per year in aid to a limited number of students.

States like Indiana, Minnesota and Texas all have financial aid expenditures exceeding $10,000 per student per year, said Bob Murphy, director of policy at MASU.

“We’re not going to grow as a state if we don’t have an educated workforce,” said LaSata, R-Niles.

LaSata’s proposal comes as all universities except the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor are bleeding students.

Between 2019 and 2021, enrollment at Central Michigan University fell 20.4%, according to enrollment data from MASU.

Eastern Michigan University student numbers have fallen 13.7% during the pandemic, while enrollment at Oakland University is down 9.7% and Wayne State University is down 7.1% fewer students enrolled at its Midtown Detroit campus, according to MASU data.

“There’s nothing in this state that could change the listing to a dime like this (proposed scholarship),” Hurley said.

A major state investment in higher education would send a signal to businesses that Michigan is always on the lookout for talent to retain local talent and attract newcomers, Donofrio said.

“Now is the time to be bold,” Donofrio said, noting that the Legislative Assembly is sitting on some $5 billion in federal stimulus and one-time excess tax revenues. “I think that would absolutely send a message.”

There are also 1 million Michigan adults over the age of 25 who went to college but never graduated, 700,000 of whom live in Southeast Michigan alone, according to the Regional Chamber. from Detroit.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Reconnect program, which offers free community college to those adults who are “upgrading their skills,” was modeled after a Tennessee Republican program created in 2017, which is credited with raising rates of voluntary state graduation to be on par with Michigan now.

The scholarship program LaSata proposed in the Senate higher education budget would cost the taxpayer $361 million.

For some perspective, that’s about 84% of the total state funding Michigan community colleges receive each year.

The proposal follows Whitmer and the Legislature disbursing $666 million in taxpayer subsidies to GM and South Korean battery maker LG Energy Solution for creating 4,000 jobs at two electric vehicle and battery factories – in cost of $166,500 per job.

LaSata acknowledged that funding for the new fellowship would be “year to year,” subject to the whims of an ever-changing legislature.

At Monday’s Detroit Economic Club meeting, Donofrio stressed that the state needs a cohesive talent creation and retention program that withstands economic downturns and changes in which political party controls the governor’s office. and the legislature.

Ron Hall Jr., CEO of Detroit-based car seat supplier Bridgewater Interiors LLC, spoke alongside Donofrio at Monday’s business club meeting.

Hall’s family business — Michigan’s second-largest black-owned company by revenue, according to Crain’s Data Center — has a manufacturing plant in northern Alabama that assembles seats for American factories of Honda Motor Co.

He spoke of walking away from a meeting late last year of southern auto business leaders “stunned” to hear from the governors of Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina. South talk in detail about their strategy to “attack the Upper Midwest and Michigan” and “move automotive manufacturing to the Southeast…and make sure this region continues to be the area where the industry is growing.”

“They spoke with great pride about the jobs they were able to get from Michigan,” Hall said.

The takeaway for Michigan policymakers, Hall said, is fixing the Great Lakes state’s bottom-line education system is more important than ever as the future of auto manufacturing in the he state that put the world on wheels is getting murkier every day.

“We need to be more urgent, period,” Hall said, “and not take it for granted that we’re going to continue to be an economy that can be rooted in manufacturing.”

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