Today, the Michigan State Board of Education met to discuss Michigan’s progress towards achieving the ambitious goal of 60% of adults having a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030. Governor Whitmer joined a national movement of 45 other states across the country when she announced the state’s college “Sixty by 30” attainment goal in 2019 with widespread support from the business and education communities in the state.
Increasing the proportion of residents with a postsecondary degree or credential is designed to address the state’s longstanding skills gap and fuel the state’s economic growth. According to a report released last year by Michigan’s Future Inc, “the lion’s share of the state’s highest-paying jobs are reserved for applicants with bachelor’s degrees.”
To meet the goal, the administration created a new office, Sixty by 30, and worked with the legislature to create two new scholarship programs, Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners, which provide in-district tuition and mandatory fee coverage to individuals over the age of 25 and frontline workers who do not currently have a college degree. The state slowly started to restore the dramatic funding cuts to higher education sustained during the 2008 Great Recession.
Despite these investments, the state is not on track to meet its goal. Before the pandemic, attainment in Michigan had grown from over one-third of working age adults with a diploma or skills certificate in 2008 to 49% in 2019. The pandemic has disrupted this trajectory, causing widespread enrollment declines, especially at community colleges.
Reaching Michigan’s postsecondary attainment goal will require state policymakers to take an evidence-based approach and invest in the supports needed to move students not just into degree programs but all the way to graduation. Furthermore, it will require college access and affordability efforts that target traditional-aged students in addition to adult students. Here are five key steps that would help the state reach its goal:
- Make college affordable for any student who wishes to attend. Currently, Michigan has the highest median tuition and fees in the Midwest and spends less on need-based financial aid than all Midwestern states but Ohio. Attending a community college in Michigan will eat up 43% of the income of a family earning less than $30,000. This lack of investment, coupled with complicated rules for getting and keeping some state financial aid, makes college particularly unaffordable for low-income students and contributes to the lack of educational attainment state-wide.To address this problem, the state should invest more in operational funding for public colleges and need-based financial aid programs and simplify the state financial aid programs to make them easier for students to access and maintain.
- Provide comprehensive student support. Only forty percent of Michigan students enrolled at a 2-year institution graduated with a degree or skills certificate within six years. Michigan can do better. The approach with the strongest body of evidence for increasing college persistence and completion rates and earnings upon graduation combines frequent and proactive advising, financial, academic, and personal support. CUNY ASAP, Bottom Line, One Million Degrees and other programs that take a comprehensive approach to student success have all been found through randomized controlled experiments to substantially improve key postsecondary outcomes, even doubling the graduation rate and moving participants out of poverty and into middle class jobs.
- Ensure students basic needs are met. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, 51% of college students experience food insecurity, 45% experience housing insecurity, and 9% are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Permanently extending the enhanced eligibility exemptions for college students in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that were put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic would reduce rates of food insecurity among college students. Similarly, providing affordable and proximate housing could reduce student housing insecurity and homelessness.
- Improve access to affordable and reliable transportation. Most Michigan communities lack a robust and consistent public transportation system and not all students have access to personal transportation. This barrier can make it difficult for students to manage their schedules especially if they are balancing classes, work, and caregiving responsibilities, as many students do. Investing in more public transit, free or reduced-price parking, free shuttles, and other creative solutions could address these challenges. Research on effective solutions to the transportation challenges students face is nascent but growing. In Michigan, it should be a focus and priority.
- Build sector-based solutions through collaboration between employers and post-secondary institutions. To help more students attain a degree, Michigan would do well to implement sectoral training approaches that couple degree or credential programs in areas of study where family-sustaining jobs are in demand with strong support to help students get through. Programs like Per Scholas, Year Up and ProjectQUEST provide a clear path to a well-paid job while supporting students as they earn a degree or credential along the way.
The Sixty by 30 goal is bold, ambitious, and has widespread support among key organizations and policymakers throughout the state. Achieving it would set up Michigan to compete with surrounding states economically for decades to come. But policymakers must do more than put words on a paper. Ensuring access to higher education and helping every student succeed will take a concerted investment in evidence-based solutions that break down the barriers keeping students from finishing college and in making college more affordable. Only then will Michigan be able to improve attainment rates for students, particularly those from low-income households, students of color, and adult students.