More Michigan Parents want College Education for Kids

More Michigan Parents want College Education for Kids
October 28, 2010/Detroit News

By Nolan Finley

Out of Michigan's cataclysmic economic collapse comes a heartening piece of good news — the culture of education is growing healthier.

Five years ago, The Detroit News, working with Your Child of Michigan, a coalition of education groups, surveyed parental attitudes about the importance of going to college. The results were shocking: Only 27 percent of parents saw getting a college degree as essential to success in life.

That finding triggered considerable resentment and pushback from both parents and educators. In the weeks after we ran the poll results, my e-mail and voice mail were filled with angry messages from parents who said, "Forget about college, bring back our factory jobs," and from educators who insisted, "Not all children should go to college." But it also gave ammunition to reformers pushing lawmakers to adopt a more rigorous high school curriculum and focus the state on the link between education and economic growth.

This fall, The News and Your Child asked the same question in a poll conducted by Mitchell Research and Communication and funded with the help of the New Economy Initiative.

The results indicate Michigan parents are starting to get it. Thirty-seven percent now see education as essential to success. We highlight the "essential" choice because education experts tell us that parents must view college as absolutely vital to do what's necessary to prepare their children to go.

Other questions also show sharp improvements in attitudes about education. Seventy-six percent of parents agree this year that "everybody should go to college," compared to just 54 percent in 2005. And 78 percent say people who get a college degree are better off than those who don't, compared to 63 percent in 2005.

"People are now aware we're not in a cyclical economic downturn," says University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, who challenged us to examine attitudes about education during a visit to The News in 2005. "Job needs are changing; the workplace is changing and the 21st century is not going to be like the 20th century."

Coleman is seeing the tangible evidence of the attitude shift. U-M and its campuses in Dearborn and Flint all reported record enrollments this fall. And enrollment in community colleges is up 28 percent statewide this year.

"When you have that level of demand, particularly in Flint, a bellwether community for the economy, it's pretty clear people are saying, 'We know we have to go to college if we want a better life,'" she says.

2005 findings push reform

State school Superintendent Michael Flanagan agrees the poll is evidence that Michigan is coming to grips with economic reality. But he also sees a connection to the reforms the original poll helped drive.

"We used the 2005 data to make the case for the more rigorous high school requirements," Flanagan says. "It blew open the debate and won over some people who had been opposing us. Passage of the new curriculum was directly related to the wake-up call those stats gave. Once we got the tougher curriculum in place, test scores started going up — they've improved three years in a row — and now you have better prepared students, with more confidence, who are starting to say, 'Hey, I can go to college.'" Flanagan notes that the way Michigan talks about education has changed, as well.

When Gov. Jennifer Granholm took office in 2002, she did a listening tour of the state, asking which areas of the budget should be cut. In nearly every session, residents told her to cut college and university spending first.

"Now people say, 'Education is economic development,'" Flanagan says. "That wasn't the case five years ago."

The conversation is most transformed in the schools themselves, says Jim Ballard, head of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

"Five years ago we still had educators saying that not all kids need to go to college," Ballard says. "You don't hear that anymore. There is an understanding that the standard for measuring our job performance is getting every child ready for college."

Parents are buying in

Parents, Ballard says, "take education as a given now. They assume their kids are going to continue their education beyond high school."

That's for sure the case for Marchelle Freeman of Detroit, who has made college a mission for her three daughters.

"You can't do anything without an education," says Freeman, a self-employed event planner who is enrolled at Henry Ford Community College and hopes to someday get a law degree. "In my house, college is not a choice, it's an expectation."

Freeman is trying to get her twin 12-year-olds into a college preparatory boarding school to give them a better shot at landing in a top university. "They know their success depends on a good college education," she says.

In Huntington Woods, the sermon is the same in the Campbell household. "There's college and that's it," Carol Campbell says of the options for her three sons. "In life, you can have mediocrity or excellence, and the difference is education." Like Freeman, Campbell is also in college herself, trying to complete a Wayne State University degree she began pursuing 24 years ago.

"My life would have been a lot different had I finished college earlier," she says. "My kids understand that."

Preparation is next focus

Among the poll's other findings: Fewer students (76 percent) are enrolled in public schools than in 2005 (87 percent), but overall confidence in the education system is roughly the same, with only about half of parents having complete or a great deal of confidence in the schools their children attend.

Despite rising tuition at Michigan colleges and universities, most parents (52 percent) believe college will be affordable by the time their children get there, about the same response as in 2005.

The economy is taking its toll on college savings accounts. Sixty-nine percent of parents say they have started saving for college, compared to 75 percent five years ago.

More parents believe even a four-year college degree is not enough. Sixty-nine percent want their children to get an advanced degree, compared to 42 percent in 2005.

Attitudes about education are fairly consistent across racial and ethnic groups.

Parents understand the importance of tough courses, with 59 percent saying it's more important for their children to take hard courses than to have a good grade point average, and 36 percent saying the opposite.

That last statistic encourages Flanagan, since making high school even tougher will be the focus of future reform efforts.

Half the students who enter Michigan colleges require remedial training in math.

That poor preparation helps explain the state's poor college graduation rates.

"We can't just get them into college, we have to get them through college," Flanagan says.


Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of

The Detroit News.