Detroit Regional Chamber > Education & Talent > Finley: 20 Years Later, Michigan Still Lacks Culture of Education

Finley: 20 Years Later, Michigan Still Lacks Culture of Education

October 27, 2023

This spring, the Detroit Regional Chamber conducted a poll of Michigan voters that revealed only about a quarter of them believe a college education is very important to landing a successful job. This data is cited in the Detroit News editorial below.

While that recent poll reiterated a troubling existing perception issue, the Chamber has long been committed to improving that notion and developing Michigan’s culture of education.

The Chamber’s robust education and talent initiatives are leading the charge on this critical work statewide to improve access to higher education and ensure student success to increase educational attainment in the state.

Most recently, the education and talent team at the Chamber testified in Lansing to support legislation that will require FAFSA completion for high school graduation. It also operates programs like the Detroit Promise and Detroit Drives Degrees Community College Collaborative, which seek to improve the educational system, making higher education more accessible and creating more efficient collaboration among higher education institutions.

However, this work will be in vain if the current perception of education’s importance isn’t improved. The Chamber’s efforts continue to expand to address this challenge and help build the state’s culture of education.

Learn more about the Chamber’s education and talent initiatives here.

The Detroit News
Oct. 25, 2023
Nolan Finley

Twenty years ago we thought we had the answer.

The question was posed by Mary Sue Coleman, who dropped by our offices for a visit with the Detroit News Editorial Board.

“Why doesn’t Michigan value education?” asked the then-recently appointed president of the University of Michigan.

We were stunned by the assertion. Of course, Michigan had a strong culture of education. Wasn’t the stature of her own institution proof?

Check it out for yourselves, she challenged.

So we did. In an unlikely alliance with the Michigan Education Association, we commissioned a survey of parental attitudes about higher education.

The results shocked us. Just 27% of parents said they considered a college degree essential to their children’s success in life.

That challenged everything we believed about Michigan as a place where well-paid factory workers aspired to send their children to college and on to a better life.

Pushback was immediate and passionate. Many challenged the results, which were mirrored by subsequent polls. Others questioned our use of the word “essential,” which we felt would capture the commitment of parents to prepare their kids for college, and their willingness to sacrifice to get them there.

The most common response was: “Don’t lecture us about college. Bring back our good factory jobs.”

Countering that denial of economic reality became a crusade for us and many others in Michigan. Millions of dollars were spent promoting the value of higher education and driving home the connection between college and success.

So, two decades later, where do we stand? In the same place.

A recent survey by the Glengariff Group for the Detroit Regional Chamber finds just 25% of today’s parents consider a college education essential to a successful life.

“Both political parties and a lot of our business leaders still have a vision of a successful Michigan as factory-based and skills-based,” says Lou Glazer of Michigan Future, who analyses the chamber’s finding in an adjacent op-ed. “They keep trying to recreate the Michigan of the 20th Century. Those days are gone.”

Sounds a lot like the analysis of the survey we did in 2003.

Glazer says while skill-based careers can pay decent wages, they are not a certain path to the middle class.

“If you use $70,000 a year as the definition of a good-paying job, 80% of the jobs in Michigan that pay that much require a four-year degree,” he says.

Perhaps most troubling is the revelation that a college degree begets college degrees. Among 21- to 29-year-olds, 71% with at least one parent who graduated from college attended college themselves.

For those whose parents have just a high school education, only 19% have a college degree.

“Affluent kids are getting college degrees,” Glazer says. “Everyone else is not. That contributes to a slowing of economic mobility and racial equity.”

I asked Margaret Trimer, who was the MEA executive who worked with us on the culture of education project, for her thoughts on why we failed to move the needle.

She said the major obstacle to college attendance — cost — has only worsened over the past 20 years.

“The affordability factor is huge,” says Trimer, who went on to run high-performing charter schools and is now a vice president with Delta Dental Plans. “Parents just can’t find the resources. For a lot of households, college truly is out of reach.”

She added — and I agree — that higher education hasn’t adapted to a new generation of students. It is still locked into a four-year degree model that has students taking irrelevant — and expensive — classes just to get the 120 credits required to graduate.

“Colleges could be more flexible and offer different tiers of education based on a student’s career needs,” she says. “If it takes less than four years to impart the knowledge necessary for their goals, that should be an option.”

What should we have done differently 20 years ago? Speaking more directly to kids, rather than focusing so much on their parents.

“What’s been missing is that students don’t see the value proposition of college,” Trimer says. “We tell them to go to college, and they see their friends who have college degrees and are working in low-paying jobs. They don’t see the reality lining up with the dream.”

“The K-12 schools have to be very committed to giving kids a world view that is larger than their classrooms, neighborhoods and peer groups through job shadowing, career exposure, internships.”

We didn’t sell kids on college over the past 20 years. If someone doesn’t sell them over the next 20, Michigan’s hopes of rejoining the most prosperous states won’t be realized.