West Michigan college attainment gap is worrisome
The most prosperous places in the country –– without a lot of oil and natural gas –– are mainly larger metropolitan areas with a high concentration in knowledge-based services and a high proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more.
West Michigan is not one of them — largely because it is a laggard in both employment and compensation in the knowledge-based sectors of the economy and in college attainment.
Of the 54 regions with a population of 1 million or more, metro Grand Rapids ranks 54th in knowledge-based industry concentration and 42nd in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree.
That largely explains the region’s ranking of 52nd in per capita income and 49th in growth of real per capita income from 2001-2011. Per capita income in West Michigan actually declined over that period by 2.6 percent compared to growing 5.0 percent nationally, while 30.8 percent of the region’s household have incomes four times the poverty rate or higher (our metric for middle class and above) compared to 34.8 percent nationally.
Metro Milwaukee and Pittsburgh demonstrate the benefits of transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. Neither are high-cost-of-living, coastal, huge metros that we tend to think of when we think of high prosperity regions. So they very well can serve as models for West Michigan.
Both are prototypical Rust Belt metros that are now prospering. Metro Pittsburgh is 14th and Milwaukee is 15th in per capita income of the 54 metros with populations of 1 million or more. They have per capita incomes of $44,557 and $43,923, respectively, compared to $33,974 in metro Grand Rapids, and have 2001-2011 per capita income growth rates of 8.6 percent and 2.6 percent.
The result is both cities have a broader middle class: 37.9 percent of metro Pittsburgh’s households have income four times the poverty rate or higher. It’s 37.4 percent in metro Milwaukee.
The key to success in both regions is their transition away from manufacturing-based to knowledge-based economies. Neither region is a leader in either knowledge-based concentrations or college attainment, but both are moving in the right direction to obtain high prosperity in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
Maybe most worrisome for the future prosperity of West Michigan is the growing gap in college attainment of those in the 25-34 age range; they are the human capital that will drive economies in the future.
Lou Glazer is the president of Michigan Future, a nonpartisan, non-profit orginization.