Rick Haglund: Changing parents’ attitudes about the value of college is key for the economy

Central Michigan University (Susan J. Demas)

By Rick Haglund, Michigan Advance

Central Michigan University has long been known for giving low-income, middle-class and first-generation college students the opportunity to earn a four-year degree and lead a fruitful life.

But the Mt. Pleasant university, like many other higher-education institutions across the country, is facing hard times. CMU’s enrollment has fallen a stunning 43% over the past decade, from 27,114 in 2012 to 15,465 last year.

Another enrollment drop is expected this fall, prompting the university to temporarily close four dorms on campus. Enrollment at CMU fell 11% during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest among Michigan’s 15 public universities.

Thirteen of the state’s public universities also posted enrollment declines last year from 2020. Enrollment rose to a record 50,278 students at the University of Michigan. Enrollment at Michigan State University was essentially flat.

Recent enrollment drops can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced most universities to switch to remote instruction for much of the past two years. That resulted in many graduating high school students delaying decisions to attend community colleges and universities.

The state is bucking the national trend in declining community college enrollment. But Michigan Community College Association President Brandy Johnson attributed that almost entirely to two of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s programs targeting adults already in the workforce: Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect.

Those two programs, which offer two years of free community college tuition, have enrolled more than 165,000 workers. 

The decline in high school graduates attending college started long before COVID hit. The implications for Michigan, an aging state facing a shortage of talent, are dire unless the trend is reversed.

A new report from the Detroit Regional Chamber found there are about 220,000 jobs in metro Detroit that employers can’t fill. Automakers are struggling to find enough software engineers and other college-educated workers needed to power their transition to electric vehicles.

Jim Farley, chief executive at Ford Motor Co., recently said building an advanced electric vehicle architecture “requires totally different talent. We don’t have that talent at Ford.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

It’s a great time to have a college degree, particularly a four-year sheepskin. A Georgetown University study last year found the median lifetime earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree were $2.8 million, 40% more than those holding an associate degree and 75% more than those with a high school diploma.

Yet too many young people are foregoing college. Experts cite a variety of reasons, including affordability, rapidly rising wages for jobs not requiring a college degree or credential and a lack of interest in higher education.

A recent Pew Research Center nationwide survey found that 34% of men and 25% of women who don’t have a bachelor’s degree and are not enrolled in school “just didn’t want to” go to college.

Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, told me parents are often at the heart of their children’s decision not to pursue higher education.

“We see it all the time in the kids we talk to, said Fewins-Bliss, whose organization works to encourage college enrollment and improve graduation rates. “Mom and dad say they can’t afford it. People on the news say you don’t need it. There’s an urban myth that you don’t have to go to college anymore.”

Parents often kill their kids’ college dreams by refusing to provide their income data required on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Much of the resistance to FAFSA comes from parents’ distrust of government and privacy concerns, Fewins-Bliss said.

Plus, a wave of anti-intellectualism has swept the country, promoted by a band of conservative governors and lawmakers, many of whom graduated from the most elite universities in the country.

Affordability remains a major issue for many, in no small measure due the steep decline in state support to colleges and universities.

In 1979, state appropriations funded 70% of the operating costs at Michigan’s 15 public universities, while tuition and fees funded the remaining 30%.

Those percentages have since flipped, Last year, 78% of the costs of a university education were paid by tuition and fees, while state appropriations paid for 22%. That’s according to House Fiscal Agency data compiled by the Michigan Association of State Universities.

A wave of anti-intellectualism has swept the country, promoted by a band of conservative governors and lawmakers, many of whom graduated from the most elite universities in the country.

Whitmer has proposed a 10% increase in university appropriations for fiscal 2023, the biggest increase in years. But the $1.63 billion she’s offering to universities is 28% less than what the state spent for universities 20 years ago, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Fewins-Bliss said his organization is focused on getting more students and parents to fill out the FAFSA, which will likely lead to increased college enrollment, and making college more affordable.

Among its legislative recommendations is spending federal American Rescue Plan money on scholarships for the “COVID Class” of high school graduates since 2020 who didn’t enroll in college because of the pandemic.

Support for increased college spending is likely to meet resistance from a Republican-controlled Legislature that for decades has prompted tax cuts for just about any economic ill.

But as Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Dan Hurley told me, the top priority of Michigan employers is finding talent. If they fail, Michigan’s economy will suffer greatly.

“Talent is the new currency in today’s economy,” he said. “Talent trumps tax policy every day of the week. “I’m not hearing corporate leaders beg for tax cuts. What I’m hearing is talent, talent, talent.”

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Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected] Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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