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Whitmer sets new higher-ed goal — with clearer message — 15 years after Cherry Commission

February 17, 2019

Crain’s Detroit Business

By Chad Livengood

“If Michigan’s residents, education systems and governments can work together to increase the share of the state’s population with credentials of value, Michigan will be a vanguard state for economic vitality and quality of life.”

That was one conclusion from a 143-page report authored by the commission that then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm empaneled in 2004 to lay out a strategy for Michigan to double the percentage of adults with post-secondary credentials within a decade.

The commission chaired by former Lt. Gov. John Cherry called for a sweeping new approach to developing the Michigan’s talent pool — from improving degree completion rates to breaking down the silos between the hundreds of K-12 school districts, 28 community colleges, 15 public universities and 25 private colleges.

For the most part, the Cherry commission’s primary strategies were never fully realized — for a whole bunch of economic and political reasons.

After the report was released, a multimillion-dollar gubernatorial election ensued, Michigan’s decade-long single-state recession ballooned into a near-depression, the national economy collapsed, two of the three automakers went bankrupt, people with bachelor’s degrees left the state by the moving van load, higher-education funding got repeatedly slashed — and we have spent the past decade crawling out of the hole.

Here we are nearly 15 years later, with a new Democratic governor who is, once again, calling for a focused approach to boosting the number of adults with college degrees or high-quality certificates.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal of having a 60 percent higher-education attainment rate by 2030 is actually below the 64 percent rate Granholm challenged leaders in education, philanthropy, business and government to achieve by 2014.

As of 2017, 45 percent of Michigan’s adult population had a college degree or high-quality credential, ranking the Great Lakes State at 32nd in the nation, according to the Lumina Foundation.

“Had Michigan been able to implement some of the 2004 Cherry commission goals we would have a better-educated, more competitive and a more prosperous workforce today,” said Richard Rassel, chairman of the Butzel Long PC law firm and co-chair of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees initiative.

To reach the 60 percent goal by the end of the next decade, Whitmer proposes establishing a new state scholarship that would make two years of community college free and allow the scholarship to be applied to the first two years of a four-year education at not-for-profit universities. She also wants to reconnect adults over age 25 with educational opportunities to earn technical certificates or associate’s degrees that also would be paid for by taxpayers.

“If you’re willing to put in the work, you will have a path to succeed,” Whitmer said Feb. 12 in her first State of the State address.

Whitmer’s proposed Michigan Reconnect program targets an entire generation of under-educated adults in their 30s, 40s and even their early 50s who have some college credentials, but never completed a degree or certificate program.

In the seven counties of Southeast Michigan, this subset of the potential workforce amounts to 691,000 adults, or nearly 7 percent of the state’s population, said Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent programs for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Southeast Michigan is 570,000 degrees or credentials short of meeting the Detroit chamber’s own goal of having 60 percent of adults in the region with a post-secondary credential by 2030.

“Southeast Michigan has a large pool of people with some post-secondary education, but no credential,” Handel said.

Statewide, an outsized portion of Michigan’s adult population lacks a higher-education credential of any sort.

Michigan ranks fifth in the nation in the percentage of adults — 20 percent — with just a high school diploma, said John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and past adviser to the Cherry commission.

Whitmer’s Michigan Reconnect program offers a chance to “upskill” these adults who have 10 to 30 more working years ahead of them, Austin said.

“If we’re serious about reaching the (60 percent) goal, with declining school-age populations, the best way we’re going to reach the goal is to help the adults who are already out there get a job,” said Austin, a former president of the State Board of Education.

Like any major shift in public policy, there are a lot of details to flesh out and challenges to making this goal a reality.

The first one, of course, is cost and how to pay for it.

During the campaign, Whitmer’s camp estimated both programs would cost a combined $100 million. That won’t be easy to come up with in a state budget under increasing strain after nearly two decades of stagnant growth.

Whitmer will detail the costs of these two programs in her budget presentation to lawmakers on March 5.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” said Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

The Cherry commission placed an emphasis on state taxpayer investment in scholarships that drove the desired outcome of having a better-skilled and educated workforce.

“Existing scholarship programs, including Merit scholarships, must continue to give access to higher education but also should be revised to create powerful student incentives for successful completion of a degree if Michigan is to maximize the economic benefit it reaps from its investment in higher education,” the Cherry commission wrote.

Whitmer’s challenge is not just getting the Legislature to agree to a new program during an economic boom time, but getting them to maintain it when the next recession hits, Cherry said.

The Michigan Merit Award scholarship was later replaced by the Michigan Promise scholarship, which got axed by lawmakers in the budget cuts during the recession.

“That was, unfortunately, Democrats (in the House) that unfunded it,” Cherry said.

The second challenge to meeting Whitmer’s new higher-ed attainment goal is public messaging.

“There’s a lot of messengers, but she is the most important messenger in the state,” Hurley said.

Granholm’s goal of doubling the percentage of adults with a degree or credential was undermined by “a messaging problem” that the goal was solely about doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees, Austin said.

“It’s not college vs. career technical and skilled trades,” Austin said. “It’s we need more of all.”

Cherry said Whitmer has better articulated how skilled trades and technical certificates should be part of the pool of post-secondary credentials to help Michigan achieve this new goal.

“She talked about that in clearer terms than we did and said that was legitimate and that it needed support,” Cherry said.

Handel said a “multi-dimensional” approach is needed to not only get high school graduates and adults enrolled in college or certificate programs, but also guide them to completion.

“There’s no simple solutions here,” he said.

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