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Reboot the Economy? Reboot Education

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"Idea Factory" woodblock print

"Idea Factory" woodblock print /mark rumsey

 In a poorly performing national economy Michigan is currently one of its worst players. Our un-employment rate hovers around 15%, not to mention the unreported stats, under-employment and low wage jobs. We also have been seeing the effects of a long-term brain drain, our best and brightest going elsewhere to look for a bright future. For a vibrant Michigan we need to foster and support a new generation of innovative, dedicated, and educated citizens. To make this happen we need to evaluate how we do things and make adjustments in our thinking and on the ground.

The price of higher education in our state is prohibitively expensive, full-time in-state tuition at MSU is around $5500 per semester, compare that to other nationally comparable schools  - University of North Carolina is less than $3000 and UCLA is around $4000. So, I was shocked when I read the Time Magazine call and response interview with our Governor, Jennifer Granholm and she talked about supporting education. I am trying to figure out exactly how Michigan is trying to compete in the realm of higher education, which is fundamental to the long-term success of our state and region, but I see no real action. Our tuition rates are high, we provide very little in the way of state financial aid. The $500 Michigan Promise program is as irrelevant as it is insulting and currently unfunded! Our college grads are leaving school with a significant economic disadvantage, excessive student loan debt.

In data from a report by Michigan Future, a little over 11% of our households are college educated young professionals, the future of our state. The report concludes, “All of our research has left us with a simple bottom line: unless Michigan, compared to the country, gets younger and better educated we will continue to get poorer.” Our State is not doing anything to get us there. Despite Granholm’s claim of empty jobs from a “skills gap,” we see our young and educated leave the state in droves. If these jobs exist, and they may, why are our best opting out? Maybe a job is not the same as an opportunity? The jobs that Granholm was referring too are essentially high end service workers, i.e. nurses and technicians. These jobs will slowly drain away as well if we do not develop a diverse and vibrant workforce fueled by educated and creative people. These people are not just looking for jobs they are looking for opportunities to create the new economy.

In Granholm’s interview she made reference that it is important for the State to support education that is useful, specifically pointing out that the liberal arts are not included. I recall just a few years ago the same person touting the benefits of the liberal arts to the economy. What was all the “Cool Cities” effort for? A real and holistic understanding of how place and people create a vibrant economy includes supporting a broad liberal arts education platform. Conceptual development, the hallmark of a liberal arts education, is vital to the skills we need most to be innovators. Dismissing the liberal arts as valid avenues of inquiry, as Granholm did in the article, shows a gross lack of understanding of how community works and how the economy works.

A potential solution? We know that we must invest more in higher education. We can do that by creating a state scholarship fund that anyone can access by meeting some basic academic requirements. This would not be your ordinary scholarship, it would be a grant with contingencies. Those contingencies would include a commitment to live and work in Michigan for one year for every year of studies where you use the scholarship. As most undergrads take five years, that would mean spending five years working and living in Michigan after graduation. If a student leaves the State prior to fulfilling their obligation then they have to repay the grant.  Meanwhile, those working and living in Michigan after graduation will start to develop roots in their community and our State. They will start to invest, they will start to bring new solutions to old problems, and they will start building the creative economy of Michigan’s future.

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One of my coworkers was at the protest last week on public education and got some video footage of Granholm that he's going to put on The Rapidian. Prior to that, he was explaining to me what it meant for GR's public education (he has a son in high school right now).

You have a college focus and bring up some very interesting points. My favorite being that a job is not necessarily the same thing as an opportunity. What does this mean for GR, which seems to be doing better than most of MI? You mentioned nurses. What does that mean for the medical hill? Also, do many students stay around here after graduating from GVSU, Calvin or one of the other institutions around town?

The study I quoted pointed out that GR has a higher rate of educated young professionals (EYP), almost 15% of our city households. In general, Urban areas provide the platform for the EYPs to do their thing. Having several colleges in the GR metro area also helps pull in the EYPs. I will look to see if I can find any figures on retention rates from local colleges.

Medical Hill and its related jobs offers some interesting twists. Some of the jobs are based in research and development, which can lead to new industry and job growth. However, most of the jobs are educated service work, the longevity of the job market is dependent on the needs of the area. A service industry, regardless of the skill level, does not by its nature foster or help to create new jobs or products or industries. If we continue to see a drain of EYPs out of the area and out of the State, the economic conditions will also start depleting jobs in other sectors such as the medical industry. 

It's also worthwhile to note that in addition to more affordable 4-year universities in California, they have a wonderful state junior college system. The majority of students there do their first 2 years at one of these fine schools and then transfer to the UC system for their last 2 years. The cost for in-state students at these really good schools? A mere $26 per credit hour. And there are numerous scholarship programs, too.

Yes, California has financial issues, too...but you can bet that they will bounce back more quickly due in part to their continuing investment in having an educated workforce. When I moved here 3 years ago from Cali...our 17 & 20 year olds stayed behind. Can't afford an education here.