Detroit Regional Chamber > Education & Talent > Michigan Spread Word on Free College. But Are Residents Listening?

Michigan Spread Word on Free College. But Are Residents Listening?

December 7, 2023

Bridge Michigan
Dec. 6, 2023
Isabel Lohman

College attainment rates are increasing in the Detroit region, but many are still unaware of state and federal programs that can lower the cost of college, according to a new education report.

Those are among the “good news, bad news” findings from the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2023 State of Education and Talent report, said Sandy Baruah, the Chamber’s President and Chief Executive Officer.

“There are promising gains like increased bachelor’s degree attainment, yet an alarming downward trend in overall enrollment,” he said in a statement Wednesday, the day the report was released. “The bottom line is that we still have too many people not earning a degree or credential after high school.”

Michigan is making a big push to increase the number of college graduates in the state, investing $70 million this year to expand the Michigan Reconnect program that pays for community college, lowering the minimum age from 25 to 21 years old.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has set a goal of increasing the number of working-age adults with a college degree or skills certificate from 50.5 percent to 60% by 2030, and college attainment is an integral component of her push this year to reverse Michigan’s stagnant population.

But people may not be getting the message, according to the chamber report: Only 15 percent of voters have heard of the Michigan Reconnect program and only 1 in 4 have heard of a new state scholarship, Michigan Achievement Scholarship, for high school graduates.

By 2027, 70 percent of jobs will require education beyond high school, according to the chamber report.

Baruah said there are many reasons people don’t attend college: the perception of high costs, doubts about paying for college when classes were online during the pandemic and a “lush” job market over the last few years that allowed those without degrees to get good jobs.

Especially for the community colleges, Baruah said, there’s an “opportunity cost.”

“Would I rather make some good money now or would I rather go to school now and miss out on that opportunity to make some money?” he asked.

The report found that, in the Detroit region, 29 percent of members of the high school class of 2017 did not enroll in college within a year of graduating. For the class of 2021, the number is 37 percent.

In that same time period, the share of those students going to community college enrollment declined 7 percentage points while four-year enrollment was steady.

Even so, Baruah said there are signs of optimism within the chamber report.

It found that 50 percent of the Detroit region high school class of 2016 earned a bachelor degree or higher within six years, compared to 43 percent of the class of 2012. For the city of Detroit, the six-year attainment rate is 25 percent compared to 18 percent in 2012.

Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, which works to increase college access particularly for low-income students, students of color and first-generation students, said more recent, encouraging data is emerging.

That’s “still not enough” and state leaders should invest more into high schools, colleges and communities to provide counselors, advisers and other people who can help students make decisions about college and career goals.

“It’s people who care about students, who care about other people and want the best for them,” he said.

The state’s new Michigan Achievement Scholarship started with the high school class of 2023. Whitmer said this week that more than $53 million in scholarships to support more than 25,400 students have been distributed.

About 142,000 Michigan adults have applied to Michigan Reconnect, the state’s tuition-free community college program.

RELATED: View the Full 2023 State of Education and Talent Report