When we think of Michigan’s archetypal college student, we are likely to imagine someone like Claire Fisher. Her academic trajectory parallels the one I and many of my college-educated colleagues in the two generations that preceded hers followed.
But it has been decades since Michigan’s average college student resembled Fisher, and in 2016 she and the classmates who share her MSU dormitory represent a diminishing minority of Michigan’s undergraduate population.
In fact, scarcely a quarter of Michigan’s college students — about 26% — fall into the “traditional” category Fisher exemplifies, a dwindling cohort composed of young single people who carry a full load of courses, rely on their families for financial support and expect to collect their degrees without pausing for anything more disruptive than an extended internship or a year abroad.
The rest lead more complicated and precarious lives — lives in which the demands of academia compete with those of full-time employment, parenthood and other adult responsibilities.
Steven Taddei, who will turn 25 this June, is a 2009 graduate of Utica High School. He left home when he was 17 and has been working full time, with no financial support from his relatives ever since.
He spent a few years after high school in Florida, where he attended a trade school for aestheticians and ultimately obtained work as a licensed skin-care specialist. But when he returned to Michigan, Taddei learned that his Florida credentials were practically useless in his home state.
Faced with the prospect of repeating his training to secure a Michigan license, he chose instead to enroll at Oakland Community College, where he hopes to obtain an associate degree in science by the end of 2018.
Taddei shares a rental house in Ferndale with two roommates. He doesn’t own a car, and he uses buses to shuttle between his full-time job at a Birmingham restaurant and OCC’s Royal Oak campus, where he’s currently enrolled in three classes.
If he’s able to remain employed and transfer to Wayne State University after he finishes at OCC, Taddei says, he hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree — like Claire Fisher, he aspires to a career in health care — by the time he’s 30.
The multitasking majority
According to census data and surveys by the National Center for Education Statistics, about three-fourths of college students in the U.S. share one or more factors — age, full-time employment, family circumstances and part-time enrollment — that demographers aggregate under the nontraditional label.
A quarter of undergraduates – almost exactly the same proportion who attend college full-time while relying on their parents’ financial support — are parents themselves.
Yet for most of the last century, Michigan, like most other states, has designed its higher education infrastructure with little thought to students like Steven Taddei.
Michigan has paid a particularly heavy penalty for overlooking non-traditional students.
In 2002, after Jennifer Granholm was elected governor, the state’s largest employers began warning her that Michigan’s universities were producing only a fraction of the college-trained workers it would need to recapture the prosperity the state had enjoyed in the heyday of American manufacturing. Granholm responded by assigning her lieutenant governor, John Cherry, to develop a strategic plan for doubling the number of college graduates in the state by 2015.
The Cherry Commission’s final report, issued in 2004, acknowledged the obstacles faced by non-traditional students and lobbied successfully to increase assistance for adults seeking to return to college after years in the workplace. But it focused most of its attention on the Claire Fishers of the world, advocating more rigorous high school learning requirements and a universal transfer agreement that streamlined transitions between community colleges and universities.
The results have been underwhelming. ACT scores are up, but the percentage of Michigan residents over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree or better has risen just a few percentage points, from 24.5% to 27.4%, in the last decade. That has left Michigan with a degreed population below the national average of 31% and far short of the educational capital boasted by top 10 states such as Massachusetts (43%), Minnesota (35%) and Colorado (39%).
The new frontier
So last December, when the bi-partisan work group that is essentially the Cherry Commission’s Snyder-era successor issued a new assessment of Michigan’s educational progress, it proposed a less ambitious goal and tailored many of its policy prescriptions for a new, more numerous constituency: full-time workers who had scraped by for years, even decades, without a post-high school degree or occupational certificate.
It’s not that traditional students like Fisher aren’t important, or that Michigan doesn’t need to do more to make sure they succeed in completing their degrees, the Michigan Postsecondary Credential Attainment Workgroup says in the 64-page report it released late last December. It’s that there simply aren’t enough of those students to close the talent gap that threatens to constrict Michigan’s economic growth.
“In coming years, Michigan will see relatively few young people moving through the educational pipeline,” the report says. “Adults are far and away the largest single cohort of citizens who, if supported in achieving workforce relevant credentials, can achieve Michigan’s overall goal” of increasing its educated workforce.
State Board of Education President John Austin, who drafted the 26-member work group’s report, notes that 25% of Michigan adults between 25 and 64 years old have taken some college courses but never obtained a degree.
“That’s our biggest target,” Austin says, “if we really want to move the needle.”
The adult disadvantage
But if nontraditional students are more abundant than their full-time, parentally subsidized counterparts, they also have a much tougher time completing the requirements necessary to claim a credential — especially the bachelor’s degree that leads to the most dramatic improvement in a worker’s earning prospects.
David Scobey, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan who previously served as dean of a program for nontraditional students at New York City’s New School, says adults with just two non-traditional factors are only one-third as likely to complete a four-year degree as their traditional peers.
Scobey is proposing that U-M’s School of Education undertake a comprehensive initiative to compile a detailed demographic portrait of Michigan’s nontraditional students, identify the policies and programs that have proved most effective in helping them obtain degrees, and consider establishing a bachelor’s degree program specifically designed for adult, working students in metropolitan Detroit.
Some of the features a system of higher education designed around nontraditional students would include are obvious: flexible scheduling that allows students to concentrate classroom time on weekends as well as evenings; effective exploitation of independent study and online learning; and expanded student aid.
Incredibly, students who’ve been out of high school for more than 10 years are currently ineligible to obtain tuition assistance from Michigan’s public colleges and universities. And restrictions on the use of Pell Grants frequently prevent part-time students from realizing their maximum benefits.
Among other things, Austin’s work group has proposed that Michigan create a new Adult Training Scholarship that makes the equivalent of two years of community college tuition free for “adults willing to work hard at earning degrees and certificates in key, regionally determined occupations.”
Certificates vs. degrees
The new educational goal proposed in the work group’s December report — boosting the percentage of Michiganders with some “workforce relevant credential” from 44% to 60% by 2025 — is at once broader and less ambitious than Granholm’s 2004 charge to the Cherry Commission.
The 44% figure captures workers with technical and occupational certificates as well as the significantly smaller population of college degree holders. The postsecondary credential work group (and the Snyder administration) would rely disproportionately on job-specific training programs to boost the credentialed population to 60%.
Gov. Snyder and the work group think that a new emphasis on occupation-specific training will pay off quickly by preparing workers for hard-to-fill jobs that already exist.
But Scobey worries that setting less ambitious goals may disserve workers, who tend to secure only incremental improvements in earning potential by securing certificates and two-year degrees. He cites empirical data suggesting the earnings premiums for those credentials hover below 30%, while those who earn a bachelor’s degree earn a 91% pay boost.
Focusing on four-year degrees would also serve the long-term interests of employers, who need a workforce that has not only the technical expertise to perform existing jobs but the “soft skills” that allow them to adapt to new roles in an ever-changing economy.
The good news is that nearly everyone outside Lansing’s elected leadership is finally paying attention to the nontraditional students who constitute by far the largest majority of Michigan’s undergraduate population. It remains to be seen whether a governor and Legislature distracted by Flint’s water debacle and fixated on short-term results will follow the professional educators’ lead.
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