Detroit Regional Chamber > Education & Talent > Workforce education isn’t making the grade

Workforce education isn’t making the grade

April 11, 2022

The grades are in for Michigan’s ability to create, attract and retain an educated workforce.

The nicest thing you can say is they’re an “Incomplete” — at least when it comes to getting students to college graduation.

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2022 State of Education report released this week makes clear that our school-to-work pipeline isn’t just leaking, it’s gushing. The problem is particularly acute for young people of color. If state policymakers don’t take concrete steps to fix it now, it could stunt our ability grow the diverse workforce Michigan so desperately needs.

Consider some of these key findings from the report:

  • Overall post-secondary attainment levels for the region are still lagging other best-in-class regions that have also been making incremental gains. Nearly half of college students in metro Detroit have not earned a degree within six years. For city of Detroit residents, that stands at an even more alarming 74 percent.
  • Total post-secondary education attainment, including certificates in programs such as welding, reached 50 percent across an 11-county Southeast Michigan region in 2019. That compares with about 60 percent for best-in-class cities examined by the chamber, like Seattle and Minneapolis.
  • Job needs and talent education levels here in Michigan are out of sync. Fifty-seven percent of jobs require a four-year degree, but less than a third — just 32 percent — of the state’s residents hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • Of 100 tracked students from around the region who were on a path to graduate in 2018, only 81 did, according to the report. Of those, 60 enrolled in college, and just a third of the entire cohort or 22 earned a degree or post-secondary credential by 2020.

The Detroit chamber a few years ago set a goal of 60 percent attainment of a college degree or other postsecondary credential by 2030. There are some encouraging programs underway, including the Detroit Promise tuition guarantee for high schoolers in the city, and a national internship program called YearUp that’s designed to connect college-age students with major companies. That program is coming to the Detroit area soon.

And there was one bright note: first-time freshman enrollment at four-year colleges in Michigan was up 1.7 percent for fall 2021, according to the report, but overall enrollment still remains below pre-pandemic levels.

That will not be enough to overcome other systemic issues that only state lawmakers — in partnership with educators and business leaders — can address.

They include better funding for the state’s colleges and universities, many of which are struggling to regain post-pandemic enrollment losses. Also critical: a recognition of the barriers that keep young adults from pursuing higher education or certificate programs, such as transportation, affordable housing and child care.

Short of a total rework of Michigan educational system and funding, there remains low-hanging fruit that could help. Some states have turned to requiring families of graduating high school students to fill out the federal financial aid application known as the FAFSA or explicitly opt out of it. That would go a long way toward helping students and parents realize that opportunities and help do exist.

We recognize that bachelor’s degrees aren’t the only path to good jobs. But it’s also incontrovertible that the cities that have the most also have the strongest economies.

Much has been made in recent months over the need for Michigan to grow its “knowledge economy” to keep high-tech investment in the state. There is no one answer to that dilemma — but making education a priority is a start.

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