Michigan slow to increase higher education graduation rate

Michigan slow to increase higher education graduation rate
Monday, June 15, 2009

Michigan slow to increase higher education graduation rate: Commission helped, but state leaders find 2015 goal elusive

Marisa Schultz / The Detroit News

It was a lofty goal: Double the number of Michigan residents with a higher education within a decade.

But nearly five years after Gov. Jennifer Granholm's call to educate the work force to a more prosperous economy, Michigan's rate has merely inched forward.

The number of degrees and certificates awarded in Michigan increased just 4.4 percent over four years, according to data compiled by The Detroit News.

So will the state make its goal by 2015?

"No," said John Austin, vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education. "Is it the right goal and target to drive a lot of policy, behavior and institutional change? Absolutely."

While progress has been slow, Michigan has made substantial strides in implementing strategies -- namely a high school curriculum overhaul -- that is expected to markedly increase the number of residents with a degree over the next decade, state leaders say.

"I think we will have double the number of people coming out the pipeline who will have credentials that are meaningful in today's economy," said Chuck Wilbur, senior advisor for education to Granholm.

The changes were spurred by the Cherry Commission, which Granholm formed in 2004 to find ways to double the number of college graduates. Spearheaded by Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the commission's landmark report identified ways Michigan could reach that goal by 2015. Such outgrowths include the 21st Century Jobs Fund economic development initiative, the Return to Learn campaign to encourage adults to finish their degrees and Promise Zones to help communities establish college scholarships.

"It was an important development in Michigan," said Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College. "We use it all the time to justify a lot of our work."

While the report served as a blueprint for education policy, the toughest task may be a cultural shift determining that education after high school is a necessity.

"I think it's been a mixed bag," said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan. "While we have seen increases in college-going rates and people going back to school, I'm not convinced the message is as strong as it needs to be."

Coleman and others point to cuts in state funding at a time when leaders want enrollment growth.

"We are trying like crazy to meet more of the needs of students," she said.

"(U-M) Flint and Dearborn have been trying to increase their student populations, but we've gotten no support from the state to do that."

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the report was the implementation of a rigorous high school curriculum and requiring all juniors to take the ACT.

State leaders expect the college-going rate to increase markedly with the high school class of 2011 -- the first to graduate under the higher standards -- and they add that results won't begin to show in degree completions until 2013.

Michigan has 322,500 residents ages 25-34 who attended college without completing a degree, said John Burkhardt, professor of higher education at U-M., who thinks encouraging these young adults to head back to school could help double the number of college graduates in less time.

"Revising the K-12 system is an important step, but it's a very slow go," Burkhardt said.

Posted on Monday, June 15, 2009 (Archive on Monday, June 22, 2009)
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