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Michigan's prosperity depends on higher education

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As Michigan embarks on a new year, leaders from every corner of the state are contemplating what actions should be taken in 2013 to more effectively grow jobs, strengthen the economy and build for a better tomorrow. It’s an interesting time to be sure, but a significant challenge threatens to block future progress.

Education attainment, or lack thereof, is the issue and it’s poised to singlehandedly decide Michigan’s economic future and whether Michiganders will enjoy greater prosperity and a better quality of life. Here’s why and some thoughts on what needs to be done.

When it comes to education beyond high school, Michigan ranks a disappointing 32nd in America. Fewer than four out of every 10 adults (36 percent) hold at least an associate degree, and that’s troubling when you consider that a study — by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — found that 62 percent of jobs in Michigan will require some form of postsecondary education or training by 2018.

The gap between where Michigan is and where it needs to be is significant and that challenging reality requires state and local leaders to appreciate — and act upon — the critical connection that exists between economic prosperity and education beyond high school. Some still question that connection, but the Great Recession made the relationship painfully clear.

During the Great Recession of 2008-2010, four out of five jobs that were lost were held by Americans with a high school education or less. Sadly, this same group is still losing jobs during our so-called recovery that began in 2010. By comparison, Americans with a bachelor’s degree or above have been steadily gaining jobs — even during the recession — and have seen an increase of more than two million jobs during the recovery. That’s good news for Michiganders with degrees and high quality certificates, but significantly more of them are needed statewide.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of Michigan’s talent shortage comes from the fact that area employers cannot find enough people with the skills they need to fill all of their job openings. A scan of classified ads from around the state reveals that there are currently more than 1,600 job openings in the fields of engineering, medical and technology alone. Those jobs are open today and if employers are unable to find the talent that they needed locally, they will look to fill those jobs elsewhere.

In the year ahead, state and local leaders must work together to find a way to supply the labor market with more people who have the knowledge and skills that are required. That certainly starts by more effectively preparing students for success beyond high school and by making college more affordable. But it also requires a redesign of the educational institutions that provide for accelerated degree programs and greater opportunity for success among low-income students, first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, veterans, and adults with some college, but no degree.

The work won’t be easy, but strategic and targeted efforts can yield big results.

For example, there are currently more than 1.3 million adults (roughly 26 percent of the adult population) in Michigan who started college but have never earned a degree. Many of these adults are only a few credit hours short of completion. If state and local leaders create a pathway that allows just 20 percent of these people to complete their degrees, Michigan would add an additional 260,000 degree holders to its ranks and help address the state’s skills gap.

To effectively address Michigan’s education attainment challenge, a new dialogue (and an increased sense of urgency) between policymakers and corporate, civic, educational and philanthropic leaders is needed. We applaud those organizations already working together to address this issue, and as the nation’s largest private foundation focused on graduating more Americans from college, we stand ready to assist in the effort.

Every state across America is grappling with the challenge of how to grow jobs, investment and individual opportunity. The challenge here is no different.

To succeed, Michigan desperately needs more people with postsecondary credentials and degrees.

Kate Snedeker

A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series