OTHER VOICES: To Prosper, State Must Add College Grads

OTHER VOICES: To Prosper, State Must Add College Grads

May 22, 2011/Crain's Detroit Business


By Mike Boulus


Virginia is one of the nation's leaders in prosperity. Its per capita income ranks seventh in the nation. It ranks sixth in the percentage of population with a college degree, and its seasonally adjusted March unemployment rate was 6.3 percent.


Michigan is an economic afterthought. We rank 37th in per capita income and 34th in percentage of population with a college degree. Our seasonally adjusted April unemployment rate was 10.2 percent.


Virginia is getting ready to turbocharge its economy. Its Republican governor has committed to add 100,000 people with college degrees or college certificates to the state's workforce -- creating more raw material for the knowledge economy -- with a focus on science and engineering graduates. And the state will increase spending on higher education next year by $65 million to do it.


The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018 63 percent of all of the nation's jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. A quick look at the most prosperous states clearly shows it is the percentage of college-educated population in a state that determines whether it is prosperous -- not low taxes.


The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation has figured out what it would take to have 60 percent of its population have a college degree by 2025. Virginia needs to add 5,631 degrees a year to meet that goal, and the additional funding will help it do so.


Michigan needs to add 9,722 annually to meet that goal. It's hard to see how that is possible in a state cutting its support to among the lowest in the nation while demanding that universities limit tuition.


We've seen this movie before, with bad results. In 2007, many of Michigan's policymakers were focused on winning a proposed Volkswagen assembly plant, with its low-wage jobs. Meanwhile, the company quietly decided to move its U.S. headquarters -- and its high-paying new-economy jobs -- from Oakland County to Virginia.


The reason given by its CEO? Not taxes, not incentives, but the ability to have access to even more creative, talented, motivated people. In other words, college graduates: Virginia has them, and Michigan doesn't have enough. And the discrepancy is getting wider.


A recent Crain's Detroit Business article ("Detroit companies hungry to fill technology jobs," March 25, 2011) discussed the inability of Michigan auto companies to find sufficient engineers to staff operations moving toward electric cars. One consultant suggested that the companies move where the engineers are -- places like Silicon Valley.


If Michigan doesn't provide the raw material for the knowledge economy, the nascent recovery will not just pass the state by. Businesses will rip from the state good-paying engineering, accounting, marketing, management, finance and other operations that demand college graduates and move them to places where brains are being nurtured and talent is choosing to live. Places where state governments are supporting higher education and the quality of life college graduates demand.


Places like Virginia.


Mike Boulus is executive director of the Lansing-based Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.