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Battling the Past
Michigan's governor emphasizes education to move the state beyond its industrial roots

By Carl Irving
Lansing, Michigan

Governor Jennifer Granholm hopes to move her state away from its past as home to the world's biggest automobile factories. To return to prosperity, she has offered an ambitious proposal: to double the number of college degrees awarded in the state-222,000 more by 2015.

"The case should be obvious," Granholm said in a recent interview. "To be able to compete in the 21st century world economy, we must increase from the present 22 percent who hold degrees. Cities, the legislature and higher ed must be fully committed, because there's a strong collective need."

After six months of study, a commission appointed by Granholm has concluded that nothing is more important to Michigan's future economic growth than a well-educated citizenry. And the way to achieve that is by doubling the number of college graduates over the next ten years, the commission said in a report that was released late last year.

"If we achieve this goal, Michigan will win the race for economic growth and prosperity," Granholm said in endorsing the commission's findings. "This report makes it clear that our state's path to a robust economy, with good-paying 21st century jobs, requires all our residents to complete their education beyond high school."

Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon believes the state's three research universities should collaborate more often.
(Photo by Santa Fabio, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
Granholm, the first Democrat to hold the office here in 15 years, clearly has faith that Michigan's citizens and educators will respond voluntarily, since Michigan public higher education is highly decentralized and there is no statewide body to implement the governor's ideas. Insiders say that the goals will be met mostly by voluntary collective efforts, aided by private fundraising. Ultimately, it is hoped, there will be supportive legislation, even though both houses have Republican majorities.

Asked about public funding, the governor conceded that "fiscal constraints may impact our speed, but they should not change our course...I'm confident that as the public learns more about the connection between higher education and job creation, there will be strong support for this agenda."

In a recent press conference at the capitol here, Granholm warned that "we have to change the image of the state, from being a rust-belt state, to the most advanced and creative in the country."

Granholm, 45, is Michigan's first woman governor, elected in 2002 after serving four years as the state's first woman attorney general. She is, perhaps, the only governor of a state, past or present, to have won a beauty and talent contest-"Miss San Carlos" (California), after which she decided to try for a Hollywood acting career.

Granholm graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in Los Angeles, but never got a part, according to the 2004 Almanac of American Politics. Nor did she care much for Los Angeles. "It was a very selfish place to be," she once told the Detroit Free Press. "To be in an environment where I was not using my intellect or (was not) expected to, was very disturbing."

Granholm returned to San Carlos and entered UC Berkeley, where she graduated summa cum laude in French and political science. After that came law school (Harvard) and eight years as a federal prosecutor, where her conviction rate is said to have been 98 percent. In 1998 Granholm made her successful race for Michigan attorney general.

The governor faces a formidable task in trying to reverse Michigan's steady slide into "rust belt" status. Like many other states that once prospered amid heavy industry, Michigan has lost a lot of ground. The jobless rate exceeds seven percent-nearly one-third more than the national average. Michigan loses far more young, college-educated people than it gains-nearly half of the state's graduates leave between the ages of 22 and 29. It ranks a dismal 45th in the country in attracting others like them from out of state. Only two cities, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, have growing populations.

More than a fourth of Michigan's high school students, and half of those who enroll in the state's public community colleges and universities, drop out before graduation-a massive problem. School districts in several areas, especially in Detroit and Flint, face growing deficits.

John Austin was policy director of the commission that recommended Michigan should adopt a goal of "postsecondary education for all."
(Photo by Santa Fabio, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
Reforms proposed from kindergarten through college will seek to reduce the number of dropouts by providing a "guarantee" that those who qualify for higher education will get financial support.

"We must focus on keeping them enrolled, to increase our workforce of certified graduates," Granholm said. "We must make sure that our universities are part of this, not just labs in ivory towers, but with expanding operations. Universities must be full building a creative workforce that can attract out-of-state business."

The reforms drafted by the Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth, appointed by Granholm and chaired by Lt. Governor John Cherry, seek to link degree granting programs to "emerging business needs," make profitable use of campus research, and begin "partnerships between public education and private business." The report envisions regions emerging in Michigan that will resemble those near Boston, in California's Silicon Valley and in North Carolina, where high tech industries have sprung up near research universities.

"To have a prayer of participating in today's economy at the same standard of living we have been used to, we have to fuel that with a better-educated people and be a center for new knowledge and job creation," said John C. Austin, policy director for the commission.

Some special funds already have been allocated to this cause:

$100 million to spur research and industry related to the life sciences, funded by proceeds from a settlement with the tobacco industry. Another such fund is sought for so-called "smart zones," with 18 community colleges as centers for workers and bosses to upgrade their skills.

But at the heart of the commission's proposals is the opening vow: "[to] forge a new compact with residents: an expectation that all students will achieve a postsecondary degree or credential coupled with a guarantee from the state of financial support linked to the achievement of that goal."

Some question whether such sweeping pledges can have any real hope in Michigan. "She's thrown her proposal into a wilderness without resources," said one sympathetic but doubtful Michigan academic veteran. Others interviewed doubt that either the public or the overwhelmingly Republican legislature will support the governor's proposals.

Austin admits the challenges include what he terms the "hangover in many people's minds that 'yeah, we could get a decent-paying job with a high school education.' But that pattern is broken and we're not going to be the home for mass production, manufacturing jobs...There are other places in the world where they are going to do that."

Granholm's ideas have drawn praise from Virginia Governor Mark Warner, chairman of the National Governors Association, who said that "governors understand that future economic prosperity depends on the quality of their educational pipelines." More importantly, many Michigan business and education leaders believe Granholm will find support among voters who are worried about the state's shrinking economy.

"There is no more important statement we make about how critical secondary education is to Michigan, to make college access possible," said Al Lorenzo, president of Macomb community college north of Detroit. "If Michigan wants to get out of its past, it needs to take risks, and we have a governor willing to take risks."

The commission's proposals, endorsed by the governor, face a fundamental obstacle: public doubt about the value of higher education. It is a sentiment often echoed here and elsewhere in recent years, Lt. Governor Cherry, said in an interview. "A large percentage nationally doesn't agree that one needs a degree to succeed, and Michigan is a microcosm of the nation. We're like a canary in a coal mine," he said.

Cherry's 41-member commission, which included business and labor leaders as well as educators, declared that any hope for a prosperous future required "the courage to set and achieve within the next ten years a new expectation for learning: postsecondary education for all."

The commission called on the State Board of Education to provide a new, rigorous "high school curricular framework" so high school graduates will be better prepared for college, and proposed that a new high school assessment program, "an accepted test for college readiness," should be developed by the 2007-08 school year.

A related proposal calls for "dual enrollment" by high school students taking college-level courses. The Presidents Council for the State Universities of Michigan (a loose confederation of the public four-year universities in a state with only a handful of small private campuses) recommends a "core course of study" including English, science, foreign language and social studies, adding up to 19 credits, equal to about a year in college. The goal is for half of all high school students to be enrolled in college courses by 2015. Even in those schools that are "most academically challenged," the target should be at least ten percent.

The commission also urged community colleges to award Associate of Arts degrees to students who have moved on to a four-year campus before completing their community college work.

"We need to encourage that, with a letter of congratulations," said Paula Cunningham, president of 20,000-student Lansing Community College. "It raises awareness about making education available, with some guarantee for access. It's something we can do even without money."

The commission also recommended that students be provided with better information about what it takes to get into college, such as correct information about college costs-often far less than parents believe. National surveys find that many families think it takes $30,000 to $40,000 to pay for a year of college, when the actual cost is much lower on most campuses. (The national average total cost of a year in college, for the academic year 2003-04-including tuition, fees and room and board but not taking into account financial aid-was $7,561 for two-year community colleges; $10,478 for public four-year institutions; and $25,023 for four-year private schools.)

And the commission called on campuses to single out for recruiting those high schools where 20 percent or fewer of the students currently go on to college.

As Granholm notes, only 22 percent of Michigan adults possess any kind of college degree-about two percent below the national average.

"We did very well with low-skilled jobs during the last century," said Lt. Governor Cherry, who grew up in Flint, which was a thriving center for automobile production until the crash in the 1980s. "In spite of that, the state built up an enormously successful higher education system," said Cherry, a graduate of the University of Michigan.

Cherry and others hope that Michigan will live up to the noble vow expressed by its pioneers 150 years ago, when they passed an act proclaiming that the state would be "good enough for the proudest, and cheap enough for the poorest."

Governor Granholm's commission also recommended that the state:

  • Set high expectations for high school students through rigorous standards and curriculum, focus on low-income communities, and help high school teachers become more effective in the classroom.
  • Help and encourage wavering college students to stay with their studies and earn degrees. Reach out to prospective students in rural and remote areas, and build closer ties between the two-year colleges and the four-year universities.
  • Increase postgraduate studies and business internships for students and faculty. Reach out to at least half of the state's 1.5 million adults with limited college training to help them return to complete degree work, and make more room on campus for increased enrollments.
  • Apply research and development talent to help existing industry expand, through new innovations, products and technologies. Align graduate studies with economic needs and opportunities, and organize and fund partnerships between business and campus.
  • Develop a lifelong education tracking system.

The commission cited evidence that a more efficient public higher education system, producing more graduates at both two-year and four-year schools, would produce a substantial financial reward. In 1999, for instance, the state's $1.5 billion appropriation to higher education had a net impact of $39 billion; for each dollar of state support, the universities collectively generated $26 of economic impact.

Paula Cunningham, president of Lansing Community College, supports the major recommendations of the governor's Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth.
(Photo by Santa Fabio, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
Although he supports most of the proposals, former University of Michigan President James J. Duderstadt sees large obstacles ahead. "Since earliest days of our frontier state, there has been deep public suspicion of state government, and so the campuses became virtually autonomous," he said in an interview. "We have two world-class research universities (UM and Michigan State) but no coordination among the 15 public four-year institutions.

Duderstadt, who served as UM president from 1988 to 1996 and now heads national studies on federal research, higher education and information technology, added, "We have a particular challenge in the midwest, because our workforce is obsolete. We have to invest in a new knowledge infrastructure."

The University of Michigan has moved in the only sensible direction, Duderstadt believes, by "redefining what they mean by a public university that's privately supported, generating resources from the marketplace and managing them in ways differing from what we did before." UM's state allocations have dropped below eight percent of the total campus budget of $4.2 billion, he noted, with most of the resources now coming from outside the state via research, $25,000 out-of-state tuition charges, private support, and Medicare and Medicaid payments.

But he regrets that states like Michigan and Virginia have pushed their flagship campuses so far in this direction. "We have public policies that are turning us into a campus for the rich. UM students now come from families with an average income of $100,000 a year," and financial aid for low-income students is inadequate.

Duderstadt predicts it will be 20 to 30 years (as "the baby boomers pass on through") before state governments once again become more generous to higher education. But he still hopes, in line with Governor Granholm's goals, that the state "will come to grips with the reality that we're in a different era now-investing in infrastructure and markets, linking campuses, sharing courses and libraries, and putting more state tax dollars into need-based financial aid."

The University of Michigan's thriving home town, Ann Arbor, is loaded with research activity that has worldwide impact, providing a prime model for the rest of the state's communities and their campuses.

UM's greatest contributions, say commission planners, might involve attracting highly skilled people and investment from around the world to adjacent research and industry operations. "Our universities are critical components in creating the environment that will attract and retain a younger generation," UM President Mary Sue Coleman said.

Coleman cited a study alleging that 1.5 jobs are created for every UM job in place. In one year (2000-01), UM teaching, research and private contributions attracted about $2.3 billion in personal income. No other Michigan campus comes close to such totals, according to university officials.

Michigan State University's president, Lou Anna Simon, said she and Coleman had agreed that they, along with Wayne State University, in Detroit-Michigan's third research campus-should find ways to "partner much more effectively," and have "a more positive impact on the state than any one of us could have by ourselves." The three campuses already have established a cooperative computer information system. And MSU and UM share library catalogs online with other universities in the Big Ten plus the University of Chicago.

Grand Valley State University, a 21,000-student campus 150 miles west of Detroit, has been a model for the commission because of its cooperative moves in the past two years under President Mark Murray, who was state treasurer in the administration of Granholm's predecessor, Republican John Engler.

"A lot can change in ten years," said Murray. "The governor deserves enormous credit for setting the bar high." He praised Granholm for "mobilizing counties, setting common goals, urban and suburban." He echoes the commission in predicting that Michigan can build on parts of its past as a "brain center for the world auto industry," with campuses providing graduates who can manage logistics, designs and information technology.

There seems to be strong public support for Granholm's plan. Several supportive editorials have been published, including one in the Detroit Free Press, one of the state's major newspapers.

Still, the governor has many critics, who point out, for instance, that although the commission calls for expanding enrollments at Michigan's public campuses, it offers no specifics on how to provide the additional space that would be needed.

Lawrence E. Gladieux, a former Washington representative for the College Board, who has written extensively about admissions problems that bar the poor, is dubious about Michigan's plans to convince low-income families that their children actually face lower costs than they believe. "It may be impossible to do that, until college prices, tuition and fees, stop running ahead of inflation," he said.

"I personally think the attitude too often is, 'We're full up; we're doing all we can,'" said Gladieux. "I don't think higher education should get a 'bye in trying to deal with inequality that is growing in our society and the world. It's an open question whether higher ed is a force for increasing equality or heightening inequality."

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm believes the state's economic future depends on increasing the number of two-year and four-year college graduates.
(Photo by Santa Fabio, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
But Austin, the Michigan commission's policy director, thinks that attitude has faded away in his state, as a result of the governor's efforts. "We're getting our higher education institutions to embrace completion as the goal, particularly among those who traditionally don't go to college," he said. "We're asking them to make it more affordable, to help reach out to high schools with low sending rates to college.

"We've got to get over the hangover that 'maybe we're doing OK in Michigan and things will come around.' We've got to nurture understanding that it isn't coming around, and we need to change."

Freelance writer Carl Irving lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2005



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