Guest Column, Education, and Human Resources

Higher education system needs fundamental redesign

May 3, 2019
| By Lou Glazer |
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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with lots of bi-partisan and business community support, has established the goal of 60% of Michigan adults having a postsecondary credential by 2030.

The Lumina Foundation — which has been at the center of the national effort to get to 60% — calculates that in 2017, 45% of 25-to-64-year-olds in Michigan had a high-quality certificate, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. Getting from 45% to 60% will be quite difficult.

Before we explore the barriers to getting to 60%, it is worth noting there are nowhere near 60% of Michigan jobs that require a postsecondary credential. In 2017, 51% of Michigan jobs were in occupations that require no more than a high school degree. The state's 2016-2026 projections are that annually over the next decade, 58% of job openings will be in occupations that require no more than a high school degree.

Another caution worth noting is that lots of nondegree credentials don't lead to family-sustaining wages and benefits. Think cosmetology, for example. So, defining high-quality certificates is vital. One unintended negative consequence of the 60% goal could be that we end up pushing people into getting credentials for lower-wage jobs. That’s not progress.

A final cautionary note: The 60% goal seems to give equal measure to high-quality certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees. They are in no way equal. More than 77% of Michigan employment in occupations with a median wage of more than $61,000 is in occupations that require a four-year degree. The reality is that for individuals, households, states and regions, four-year degrees are, by far, the most important to achieving economic well-being.

With those cautions noted, what follows are the lessons we have learned about the most impactful levers to substantially improve postsecondary credential attainment. The problem is most are difficult to implement. If you take them off the table because they are hard, you end up not moving the needle much.

The main reasons for low postsecondary credential rates are underfunding of both educational institutions and meeting the whole child needs of students, and that K-16 institutions, by and large, are not designed for mass postsecondary completion. If you don't do the hard work to deal with both, you cannot get from the 45% postsecondary credential attainment of today to 60% by 2030.

The book “Redesigning America's Community Colleges” defines the basic challenge. Its authors — all from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University — write:

“Community colleges were designed to expand college enrollment, particularly among underrepresented students, and to do this at a low cost. They have been extraordinarily successful at achieving those goals. However, colleges designed to maximize course enrollment are not well designed to maximize completion of high-quality programs of study. In particular, colleges offer an array of often-disconnected courses, programs and support services that students are expected to navigate on their own. ... Instead, they need to engage faculty and student services professionals in creating more clearly structured, educationally coherent program pathways that lead to students’ end goals, and in rethinking instruction and student support services in ways that facilitate students’ learning and success as they progress along these paths. In short, to maximize both access and success, a fundamental redesign is necessary.”

Success — not access — by all students needs to become the mission of community colleges (actually all education institutions). And that needs to be accompanied by an understanding that to achieve that mission involves fundamental redesign.

The good news is we are not starting from scratch. The Columbia book lays out the playbook for substantially improving completion rates at community colleges, and I would argue nonselective universities. There is a new book called “The B.A. Breakthrough” that identifies best practices in high-poverty high schools that have led to much higher postsecondary completion rates.

The challenge is both playbooks involve fundamental redesign of education institutions. That is difficult and certainly not cheap. Each book calls for transformative change in how schools are organized, what they teach, how they teach, increased and better counseling, and increased and better student support.

Initiatives like free community college tuition and Tennessee Reconnect — both of which reduce the cost of paying for college somewhat — only deal with a small part of the reason why completion rates are so low. Tuition — particularly at community colleges — is nowhere near the biggest hurdle to earning a postsecondary credential.

If Michigan is serious about getting to a 60% postsecondary credential rate by 2030, what is needed is a substantial increase in state funding for education from birth through college and a substantial increase in state funding to deal with the life challenges that students bring with them to school once again from birth through college. This should be combined with a fundamental redesign of K-16 education institutions around the mission of postsecondary completion. Anything short of all three will almost certainly leave us in 2030 — and beyond — far short of 60%.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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