Michigan Postsecondary Credential Attainment

Michigan citizens have long valued education as the path to economic opportunity and a better life. The State is home to the one of the first great public land grant universities (MSU) an innovation that, as it spread, put higher education within reach of working families and fueled the rise of Michigan agriculture, commerce and industry. Some of the nation’s first and largest community colleges were built in Michigan, and trained workers for the technical demands of Michigan’s growing industry. The first free public high school was organized in Kalamazoo in 1874; and the idea of the community school, the school as the “lighthouse” and the center of the community life was born as the community education movement in Flint.

Alongside our Great Lakes and outdoors, Michigan’s people take the greatest pride in our colleges, universities and education system.[1] But for many years the blessings of the auto and industrial economy – where one could earn a good living without a postsecondary education degree—created an environment where higher education was desirable but not essential.

All that has changed in recent years. Michigan’s people newly understand that if we want a good economy, if we are going to be a state of opportunity that provides good jobs and good wages once again – we must refire the engine of postsecondary education and enhanced opportunity for all our people.

Today, for Michigan’s people to thrive economically and for our State to be competitive, many more of our citizens need post-high school degrees and other valuable credentials that equip them with the tools and skills not only to get a job, but to navigate a fast-changing economy and become the entrepreneurs and job creators of tomorrow.

In the Michigan economy of 2015, a high school diploma is no longer the ticket to a good job, but there are jobs available for IT specialists, engineers, nurses, programmers, technicians, scientists, welders, and skilled tradesmen and women. Michigan has to prepare more of its citizens, young and old, for these opportunities—both to meet the needs of employers who have good jobs available in Michigan today[2] and to be the job creators of tomorrow.

The states with the highest degree and certificate attainment also have the highest incomes. Today, Michigan ranks 38th in the nation in personal income, $5,000 below the national average, and has seen real incomes fall over the last dozen years in all regions of the state.

Any strategy for improving Michigan’s economy by increasing postsecondary education attainment must take into account the changing demographics of Michigan’s population. As seen in Exhibits 1a and 1b, Michigan’s population is aging with seniors and older workers representing the largest and fastest growing population.

In coming years, Michigan will see relatively few young people moving through the educational pipeline, and the state is not yet attracting significant numbers of residents back to Michigan. Michigan’s population is also becoming more racially diverse, with Black, Hispanic, Asian and non-white populations growing.

Michigan is also seeing differential population growth in different corners of the state. Parts of West Michigan, Northwest Michigan, Central and Southeast Michigan show some population growth, contrasted with sometimes small, and sometimes quite large population drops in regions elsewhere.

Strategies to achieve a significantly better educated population must work with these demographic realities and help all segments of our citizenry increase their attainment of a range of valuable postsecondary education credentials. We need to come together and value the job and economic benefits of traditional degrees, such as associate, bachelor’s, and professional degrees. We also must appreciate the power of and increase the number of Michigan citizens with other valuable post-high school credentials such as technical and occupational certificates, and apprenticeships – all of which are strongly demonstrated to help people obtain jobs and increase earnings.

And we have a lot of work to do to retake economic leadership from leading states which have more of their people educated to higher levels:

  • Only 38% of working age Michiganders have an associate or higher degree, putting us below the national average of 40% in conventional degree attainment.
  • Another 7.5% percent have earned certificates[3] that are valuable currency in the labor market. In this category we do slightly better, ranking 29th in the nation.
  • Taken together, 46% of Michigan citizens have degrees and certificates that help them navigate and succeed in the economy. As Exhibit 4 reflects, this puts Michigan well behind the top ten performing states in the share of citizens with various types of workforce-valuable postsecondary degrees and certifications, and just below the national average. (While a number of these top-performing states have very different economic and demographic profiles—several states, like Minnesota, are similar in demographic profile to Michigan.)
  • Within these total figures, Michigan faces stark differences in postsecondary educational attainment among different populations. Michigan’s Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations are 16-18 percentage points behind our White majority population in the share of individuals achieving a postsecondary degree.
  • In addition, there are dramatic differences in postsecondary education attainment among Michigan’s very different economic region

These facts, coupled with very different regional employment markets and demographic trends, demand a regional focus for postsecondary education credentialing strategy and goal-setting.

Michigan faces unique challenges, given its demographics, around how it can increase its population’s credential attainment. Michigan’s workforce is getting older, and we are still losing more well-educated people than we are attracting to Michigan.[4] Michigan also has one of the nation’s fastest declines in numbers of young adults and high school graduates,[5] suggesting improving performance for students in the traditional education pipeline, while critical, will not get Michigan to where we need to go in terms of overall postsecondary credential attainment. Meanwhile Michigan has among the highest share, 25%, of adults already in the workforce with some college, but no degree or credential.

This large number of adults without postsecondary degrees, translates into larger shares of Michigan’s population in the lowest income brackets relative to top performing states, as seen in Exhibit 8.

Absent significant in-migration of highly educated people (which explains much of the success of Colorado and other states with high levels of postsecondary attainment), Michigan simply has to educate more of its people — particularly the large number of adults already in the workforce, to higher levels — if the State is to become a national education and income leader once again.

In recent years, Michigan has taken important steps to improve these numbers and regain economic leadership, by advancing efforts that help our people follow new, education-rich paths to jobs and economic opportunity.

  • Most dramatically, communities like Kalamazoo, recognizing today’s economic realities, have organized around higher education attainment as their economic development strategy. Higher education is their community identity and “brand”. Having put in place the Kalamazoo Promise college financial aid guarantee and strong student support systems, middle-class families are moving back to Kalamazoo. College-going rates have jumped from 65% to 94% among high school graduates. A recent study by the W.E. UpJohn Institute found Promise students are also one-third more likely to graduate from college than their peers.
  • Other communities, like Port Huron in St. Clair County, that have developed robust postsecondary education and college access networks aided by the highly effective Michigan College Access Network (MCAN), have seen the rates of local high school students going on to postsecondary education jump by over 50%.
  • Michigan in recent years has increased its investments in the Great Start Readiness Program, providing opportunities for at-risk four year olds to access quality pre-school education, increasing participation from 16% to 21% of the population.[6] These investments — costing $239 million per year—will result in increased earnings of $1 billion more over participant lifetimes, reduced costs to society, and will generate a $4:$1 return on investment for Michigan taxpayers.[7]
  • Stemming from the recommendations of the Cherry Commission ten years ago, Michigan’s more rigorous high school learning requirements have supported modest improvements on the ACT test for college and career readiness (19.3 in 2011 to 20.1 in 2014).
  • The Michigan Center for Student Success has supported community colleges and their partners in new strategies to improve degree and credential completion rates. Fifty-two percent of students from the 2007[8] cohort graduated with a degree or transferred to a four-year institution by 2012, an improvement of eight points over the 44% of the 2002 cohort that had achieved a similar metric by 2007. This is quite an achievement given that these students are disproportionately the adult, minority, and low-income students historically most unlikely to complete a degree.
  • Michigan community colleges, joined by Michigan’s public and private colleges and universities — have adopted the Michigan Transfer Agreement to help streamline student transitions between postsecondary institutions—improving the odds that students will earn needed credentials, often at a much lower cost.
  • The State has built out the Michigan State Longitudinal Data System to improve our understanding of how our students are performing and fine-tune policies to do even better.
  • The Administration of Governor Rick Snyder has advanced agendas to better match workforce supply and demand, connecting learners and workers with employer needs in STEM fields (where degrees and certificates awarded have increased from 20,000 to 25,000 over the past five years[9]) and in-demand occupations within the skilled trades[10]

We have taken important steps forward. But clearly, we have miles still to go. That is why, as they did ten years ago in the Cherry Commission, Michigan stakeholders have come together:

  • To assess our progress,
  • To critically examine our postsecondary performance and how it works (or is not working) for a changing population,
  • See what other states are doing better,
  • Define and unite around a common agenda and the next steps to help more Michigan citizens enhance their skills and attain valuable credentials.

The challenge today is not just to support a fundamentally better educated citizenry. We have to make sure Michigan’s education system works “smarter” — squeezing maximum performance out of the resources we have, even as we advocate for enhanced investment in higher education access and support for the institutions that can put us among the top performing states.

We have to do a better job to connect education and learning to the demands of the workplace, and the skills needed to be an entrepreneur. We must do more than increase participation in postsecondary education and training; we must support success in completing valuable degrees and certificates. To accomplish this, we have to put the right incentive structures in place to help students and adults move seamlessly and efficiently through the system. We must measure performance accurately, making sure we value, and “count” in our performance expectations all workforce valuable credentials. We also have to dig deeper and identify and advance the policy changes that have the highest yield, and are cost-effective in terms of moving the needle to increase postsecondary credential attainment.

This is the time for our public and private institutions of higher education, the K-12 schools that feed them, and those who train and employ their students and graduates, to come together and work together in order to maximize the impact of our investments in the performance of our overall higher education and training system. And we must continue to work together to advance the performance of our system further and faster.

This report is an action plan for this work.

Overview: Reaching for Opportunity


The Case for Postsecondary Credential Attainment