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Business Leaders: ‘We Need to Do Better on Michigan’s Education Message’

Michigan faces unprecedented competition both domestically and abroad and a culture that puts a growing premium on knowledge. To succeed in the 21st century, employers must make a stronger commitment to ensure that both young people and adults are prepared and afforded the opportunity to learn key skill sets through higher education and training. That was a key emphasis of the inaugural Postsecondary Opportunity Forum held at the 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference.

The Forum, hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber and sponsored by Business Leaders for Michigan, was focused on advancing the ongoing work of the Chamber and its statewide partners to increase postsecondary education attainment to 60 percent by 2030.

“There are more than 600,000 adults in the Detroit region with some higher education experience but with no degree or credential. The time for change was yesterday,” said Haley Glover, strategy director for the Lumina Foundation. “You can’t meet your talent supply need by 2030 if you don’t start thinking holistically beyond the traditional view of who is a student.”

Glover was joined by national and local experts including Tennessee Higher Education Commission Chief Research Officer Emily House, former Maryland Secretary of Higher Education Danette Howard, Oakland University President Ora Pescovitz, and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.

Setting a Goal and Sticking to It

Drawing on lessons from Tennessee’s multipronged Drive to 55 campaign to raise postsecondary degree attainment in the state to 55 percent by 2025, House said improving outcomes in Michigan must begin with taking a critical look at areas where the state falls short and then convening partners from the public and private sector together to craft innovative solutions.

Since the launch of the Drive to 55 campaign, Tennessee is, among other things, No.1 in the country for FAFSA filing among students and adults.

“It’s one thing to set a goal and another to ground that goal with policy and program,” House said. “Every state has to deal with its own reality, so setting a goal is important. When you have that number set in stone, determine what the talent needs are and how to close the gaps.”

Therein lies the problem, however.

In Michigan, a state that falls far below the national average in key education benchmarks including the number of individuals with postsecondary certificates, associate or bachelor’s degrees, Forum attendees agreed that mobilizing statewide support around higher education enrollment is an uphill battle.

“Higher education is the difference between preparing someone for work and preparing for a job. College or technical training is more than preparing you to turn a widget; it’s about learning how to adapt, collaborate and master the skills for lifelong learning,” Glover said. “We should never, ever condition someone’s future on the resources they have in their pocket today.”

Securing additional state and federal funding for underserved populations is also challenging.

Al Pscholka, former budget director for the state of Michigan, said the Republican caucus in Lansing has shown little interest in increasing funding for higher education.

“Michigan has a lot more than a messaging problem. There is this hostility toward higher education (funding) from individuals in Lansing who went to college. It’s not good,” he said. “Lawmakers hear about roads and infrastructure, they don’t hear from constituents about higher education funding.”

“If you expect Lansing or Washington to allocate more money for higher education, the reality is you will have to look at the local level and find appropriations that way,” he added. “Businesses will come to the table, but you have to give them something to do.”

Higher Education Is an Economic Imperative

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said in the age of next-generation mobility, artificial intelligence, and medical technology innovation, there is no excuse why Michigan cannot feed the talent pipeline.

“We are living in the most exciting time ever in human history and Michigan has to be at the center,” he said. “But we have to get past the fear of disruption and educate and retrain people for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Pointing to the U.S. Army’s nationwide search for Futures Command Center, Peters said Michigan was cut from the first round of consideration due to one factor: lifestyle.

“In all other areas – talent, university innovation, and STEM education – Michigan ranked in the top 10. However, overall health and obesity, education attainment, and salary killed us. If the Army is looking at these areas to guide decisions, so are big business,” he said.

To help encourage more higher education enrollment, Peters worked with U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) on bipartisan legislation to help private student loan borrowers who default on their loans. Peters is also working with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to secure bipartisan support for the “Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act.” The legislation would allow those with outstanding student loan debt to refinance at lower interest rates.

“Access to higher education can provide a pathway to economic opportunity, but too many young people are saddled with crushing debt after they leave school,” said Peters. “You can already refinance your mortgage or car loan, and there is no reason student loans should be treated any differently.”

Award for Excellence

Recognizing strong leaders are critical to growing the region’s higher education graduates, Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent for the Detroit Regional Chamber, and Richard Rassel, chairman of Butzel Long, recognized Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn (UMD), with the inaugural Award for Excellence in Education Leadership. Little, who has served as chancellor of UMD since 2000, announced he would be stepping down in June.

“It is an honor to have served as co-chair of the Detroit Drives Degrees Leadership Council. The work of the Chamber and its partners is critical for our state, region and the Detroit Drives Degrees students who now have a brighter future,” Little said in accepting the award.