October 3, 2010/Detroit News
By Nolan Finley
Michigan's hemorrhaging of prosperity has little to do with the devastation of the domestic automobile industry, and a lot to do with our failure to prepare for that inevitability.
It's not about economics, it's about education.
"It's totally an education story," says Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit. "Michigan could have weathered the economic collapse with a better-educated work force."
Instead, the state is paying the price for not investing its past good fortune getting more of its people to college. A new U.S. Census report finds Michigan lost more than 21 percent of its household income over the past decade, the largest drop in the nation, and its poverty rate rose faster than any other state. Michigan is now in the bottom quarter of states in per-capita income, a bleak reversal from 1970, when we ranked 13th.
The realignment of wealth places Michigan exactly where it belongs in the New Economy.
We cheated our fate for decades with the help of unionized manufacturing jobs that provided fat paychecks for low skills. It was a false universe that had Michigan entering the new century ranked 16th in household income, while standing at 30th in the percentage of its adult residents with at least a bachelor's degree.
Ten years later, Michigan ranks 36th in household income and 37th in educational attainment. In a world that values brains far more than brawn, there's nothing unfair about what's happened to us.
Nearly all of the top 10 states in terms of income are also in the top 10 in education.
"We knew this day was coming," Metzger says. "We've been watching this thing fall apart all around us without doing anything."
The future will belong to places with a highly educated work force. That won't be Michigan, unless our priorities suddenly change.
But in the budget passed last week, higher education funding was cut once again, while welfare spending increased. We've prioritized treating the symptoms of our disease instead of attacking the cause.
"We need an all-out assault to improve education," Metzger says. "Everything should be about education. But Michigan still doesn't recognize what's happening and why."
The states that have passed us on the prosperity list get it. North Carolina, for example, has sacrificed to pour more money into its colleges and universities. The result is that in-state tuition at the very fine University of North Carolina is half what it is at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
Because Michigan has failed to create a climate attractive to businesses that hire educated employees, the state is now a major exporter of college graduates. Two grads leave for each one that stays, making it even more difficult for Michigan to improve its rankings.
The correlation between paychecks and college degrees will only be more clearly defined in coming decades.
Michigan's choice is to either get smarter or get poorer.
Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of The News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com. Watch him at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on "Am I Right?" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.