The good and the bad on higher education

Mixed news to say the least on making higher education a priority in Michigan. In a world where increasingly the most prosperous individuals and communities are characterized by college attainment, how we view our community colleges and universities matters a lot to the future economic success of Michiganders and Michigan. As we have written frequently when it comes to policy we have gone backwards on this for a decade. Not smart!

Three recent articles define well both the opportunities and challenges to reverse that trend. Moving back towards the state we were in the 20th Century when we built with public investments arguably the best public higher education system on the planet. First from the Census Bureau comes the facts. More Americans with a two year or four year degree than ever before. And that those with a degree are doing far better in these difficult times than those without. The data are clear: a college degree is the most reliable path to the middle class. The Census Bureau found:

In August 2010, the unemployment rate for people without a high school or GED diploma was 13.3 percent, while the unemployment rate for those with a high school or GED diploma was 9.7 percent … For higher education recipients, the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree and 4.1 percent for those with an advanced degree such as a master’s or doctorate.Workers with a bachelor’s degree had median earnings of about $20,000 or more a year ($47,510) than workers with a regular high school diploma ($26,776) or a GED diploma ($22,534).

Most encouraging on the policy front is that the business community is beginning to take the lead on higher education needing to be a much higher budget priority. As reported by the Lansing State Journal Business Leaders for Michigan is pushing the legislature to provide more funding for higher education. Specifically for Michigan to become a top ten state in higher education funding. Wow! Kudos to them. For too long business leadership has been missing in action on the importance of higher education. No more!

The article quotes the testimony of Domino’s Patrick Quinn, representing BLM, testifying that: “You’re probably wondering why the pizza guy has such a keen interest in higher education,” said Doyle, president and CEO of Domino’s Pizza. “It’s because at Domino’s, we are having a hard time finding enough high-tech talent in Michigan. Testifying Wednesday in front of the state Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, Doyle said increased funding for higher education “is one of the single most important investments you can make to ensure the future economic growth of Michigan.”

That is the welcomed good news, but there also is what can only be described as the scary. TPM reported on a Rick Santorum event. They quote the Presidential candidate as saying: He then suggested there was an sinister motive behind Obama’s push to get more Americans in college classrooms. “There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor… That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,” Santorum said. “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”And from some attendees: “They all agreed that college can help some people — but they also agreed that universities are basically socialism factories. “They try and disguise it with, you know, ‘equal opportunity’…” Stephen Clement began. “It’s communism,” Murrow said, cutting him off.”

This is not an isolated incident. There is a growing attack from the right that higher education is not a public good. That it should be for the few, not the many. And now the argument that it is primarily an instrument to indoctrinate students, not develop their abilities to their take advantage of whatever opportunity they choose to pursue over their lifetimes. A real headwind, to say the least, to getting to the higher college attainment rates that America and Michigan needs to grow the economy and rebuild a mass middle class.

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