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College enrollment in Southeast Michigan fell sharply in 2020 amid pandemic

Crain’s Detroit Business

February 3, 2021

By Chad Livengood

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ambitious 2030 goal of getting 60 percent of Michigan’s adult population to have some level of postsecondary education attainment has suffered a pandemic setback as college enrollment sharply declined in 2020.

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual State of Education report highlights a 21.7 percent decline in college enrollment among last year’s high school graduates in Southeast Michigan.

In Detroit, college enrollment among high school seniors in the class of 2020 dropped 36 percent, despite the Detroit Promise scholarship that makes tuition free for students who qualify for federal financial aid, said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Enrollment losses, particularly at community colleges, were “nearly eight times the pre-pandemic loss rate when compared to the class of 2019,” according to the report the chamber released Wednesday.

Nationally, 21.9 percent fewer high school seniors enrolled in college last year, putting the Detroit region in line with the rest of the country. The fall off in student enrollment came after community colleges and universities mostly closed campuses last spring and again in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The enrollment declines run counter to past recessions when mass layoffs have caused workers to seek new training and skills, particularly at community colleges.

Community colleges in Southeast Michigan saw a 30.3 percent decline in enrollment last fall, according to the report.

Macomb Community College and Scholcraft College saw their enrollment decline last fall compared to fall 2019 by 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively, Crain’s previously reported in November.

Statewide, four-year public universities have 6 percent fewer students than a year ago and community colleges have seen an overall enrollment decline of 13 percent, Baruah said.

“So just at the time when we need to be ramping up our efforts to get more students into the higher ed pipeline, we are losing more than ever before,” Baruah said.

The enrollment decline amounts to $224 million in lost federal education aid, Baruah said.

In her 2019 State of the State address, Whitmer set a state goal of having 60 percent of adults over age 25 with a college degree or high-quality certificate by the end of this decade.

Business and education leaders are hopeful the state can reverse the 2020 decline in new college students through two new last-dollar scholarship programs.

The Whitmer administration on Tuesday launched the Michigan Reconnect program, a college scholarship for adults over age 25 to earn a associate’s degree or postsecondary certificate at a community college or private training school. The program is backed by a $30 million appropriation and intended to cover any tuition costs not covered by federal financial aid.

The governor also has created the $24 million Futures for Frontliners scholarship program to give tuition aid to workers in grocery, childcare, law enforcement and health care who worked through COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020.

That program generated 120,000 applications, 83,000 were accepted into the program and 15,000 workers have enrolled in college classes this winter, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

About 25,000 of the applicants for the Futures for Frontliners program will qualify for the Reconnect program instead, according to the labor department.

Statewide, an estimated 4.1 million adults will be eligible for the Michigan Reconnect scholarships. In Southeast Michigan, it’s more than 700,000 adults, Baruah said.

“This body of people in our region that have some college credits but have no degree or certificate to show for it is a really target-rich opportunity for our region,” Baruah said. “If we could work on that particular demographic and get those adults … to complete their degree or their certificate, we could make a big dent in our 60 percent goal.”

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual report on educational attainment and achievement is based on analysis of data using the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties.

About 41.3 percent of Southeast Michigan’s adults have some postsecondary credential or degree — a statistic that still lags the behind the national average of 41.7 percent.

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