College access

There is a growing––but certainly not universal––understanding that the economic well being of the country and state are now highly dependent on the proportion of adults in the workforce with a college––particularly four year––degree. That human capital is the asset that matters most and is in the shortest supply for economic growth and prosperity.

And that a––if not the––key to rising college attainment rates is students from families where no adult has a college degree. So-called first generation students. Many will be minorities from lower income families. This is particularly true in a low education attainment state like Michigan where only 28% of adults have a four year degree or more.

Understanding that reality, the President and First Lady recently hosted a college access summit. Lawrence O’Donnell on his MSNBC show provided extensive coverage of the event. O’Donnell featured a young man growing up in New Orleans who couldn’t read at 14 but made it to Bard College and introduced the First Lady at the White House. Pretty amazing!  You can watch here and here. Worth watching.

The New York Times previously published two columns from African American students who made it from central city schools to the Ivy League. You can read them here and here. Worth reading.

Travis Reginal in his Times piece wrote: “For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.” (Emphasis added.)

One of the commitments the White House announced at the summit is a partnership we have developed with Alma College. It will provide scholarships initially for qualified students from the DEPSA Early College of Excellence to Alma. Ultimately the hope is we can extend the program to qualified students in all of the Michigan Future Schools high schools. This will provide Detroit students at the MFS high schools with the ability to earn a degree at a high quality small private liberal arts college. Where there is growing evidence that first generation minority students have the greatest success in earning college degrees.

Clearly we need more colleges to step up as Alma is doing to the affordability challenges faced by many high school students. Better yet we need state policy makers to stop disinvesting in higher education. Increased public investment in higher education is the best way at scale to make college more affordable.

But as Travis Reginal writes we also need far more high schools to overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations, that is so endemic in many of our high schools, particularly in central cities and rural communities, that most of their students can’t succeed in college. At its core that is what the Michigan Future Schools initiative is all about. Investing in and working with new college prep high schools in the City of Detroit that are committed to all of their students (1) graduating from high school ready for admission to colleges like Alma and (2) ultimately earning a college degree.

Meeting that standard is hard work. No one across the country has gotten there yet. But there are urban high schools across the country that have made substantial progress. None of this is possible if those in charge don’t believe that all kids can earn a college degree (not that all kids need a college degree, but all deserve a k-12 education that gives them the opportunity to pursue a four year degree if that is what they want). Higher expectations and the accountability for educators that go with it are not only vital to the economic well being of the students but also to the economic well being of Michigan and the country.


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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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