Friday: DeGrow on Higher Ed Commission
Gongwer News Service, August 6, 2004
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Sitting in the
first meeting of the Commission on Higher Education and Economic
Growth, Dan DeGrow might have been wondering what side he should
be on, that is to say if there are any sides to be drawn in the
battle to double the number of college graduates in the next
decade and keep them in the state.
Mr. DeGrow comes to the table with perhaps a more complex
background than the rest of the 40-member group, also dubbed the
Cherry Commission, after its leader Lt. Governor John Cherry.
The former Senate majority leader, community college, Michigan
State University and Wayne State University alumnus, and now St.
Clair County Intermediate School District superintendent, Mr.
DeGrow has a balancing act in front of him as the commission
kicks its work into high gear in the upcoming months.
With colleges calling for more funding, the Legislature unable
to meet the demand, high schools trying to prepare more students
for higher education and companies requiring high-skilled
workers, it seems the commission could be either total chaos or
finally a bringing together of everyone to the table. In an
interview this week, Mr. DeGrow, who chairs the subcommittee
aimed at keeping students in college once they get there, said
partisan politics aside (Mr. DeGrow is a Republican) he's just
honored Governor Jennifer Granholm thought he could help out.
Looking at the numbers
So far, members of the commission, including Mr. DeGrow, are
hesitant to discuss dollar amounts, as in how colleges,
universities, and the state actually will be able to fulfill Ms.
Granholm's goal during a time when state appropriations are
While Mr. Cherry has said speaking about money would be like
putting the cart before the horse, what is known is that without
increased state aid, the higher education system will shoulder
the burden of producing more graduates.
Universities and community colleges saw state dollars peak in
2001-02 (when Mr. DeGrow led the Senate) with $2.133 billion,
but since then school officials have seen decreasing funding and
are now promising to keep tuition increases below an anticipated
2.8 percent rate of inflation to get some rebate back from the
state, adding extra students means money for classes, faculty,
and equipment has to come from somewhere.
According to a Senate Fiscal Agency report released right before
the commission was set to meet in July, in the wake of depleting
state appropriations, community colleges have opted to cut
expensive programs. This presents a dilemma as Ms. Granholm has
asked the commission to look at how "21st century," high-skilled
jobs can be developed more in the state.
"If a college can teach freshman English for $4 per student
contact hour, while it costs maybe $15 to teach computer
assisted design (CAD) or dental hygiene, then the advice from
college budget officers is to teach more English and less CAD as
a way of saving money," the SFA report states. "The State's
public policy of producing a workforce for high-skill,
high-demand jobs takes a back seat to the demands placed on a
school by a funding structure that favors teaching over
While Michigan community colleges actually have increased the
number of students over the last few years by 15 percent, data
from the Department of Labor and Economic Growth shows that
enrollment numbers for trade, industrial, and technical classes
- some of the most expensive programs - have declined by 12
Other costly programs such as nursing have boomed during this
time, but the SFA report concluded that's a result of other
programs subsidizing their costs.
"The annual fight is how much money you give them and how they
raise tuition," Mr. DeGrow said of the grade 13-16 schools. "You
don't need money for all ideas. If we say we need a ton of money
to throw at the issue it's not going to go."
Mr. DeGrow said proposals such as making it easier for college
credits to transfer between schools and allowing students more
flexibility when it comes to changing majors would simply
require cooperation between all involved parties and not
Commission observers also say staying mum on the issue of
financing isn't worrisome at this point, however it's likely not
all recommendations will come without a price tag.
"We don't want to increase participation at the expense of
quality, and without additional resources, it's hard to," said
Mike Boulus, executive director for the Presidents Council State
Universities of Michigan.
Ready, willing and able?
Mr. DeGrow's subcommittee has a daunting task during its next
few meetings this month and in September - convincing Michigan's
college students to stay put. According to statistics, about
half of the more than 600,000 students enrolled in Michigan
schools don't complete their degree. Students at two-year
colleges have a retention rate between 42.8-49.4 percent,
compared to the national average of 54.8 percent, according to
2002 data from The National Information Center for Higher
Education Policymaking and Analysis.
Four-year institutions fair better in the state with retention
rates lingering in the 77.2-80.4 percent range, above the
national average of 73.6 percent.
There's a litany of reasons not all students will complete their
degrees, but with just 22.5 percent of Michigan residents
obtaining diplomas these days (one of the lowest numbers in the
Great Lakes region and the nation), the subcommittee will have
to establish a framework to boost that number to 45 percent over
the next 10 years.
Mr. DeGrow said one of his daughters knows how daunting it can
be to stay motivated while switching majors at a state school.
Going from premedical to an education major, his daughter has
taken on more classes this summer to catch up with other
students in her new program.
"Children are going to change their major," he said. "To be 18
and decide their life for four years (it can be challenging)."
Allowing credits to transfer more easily and providing more 8
a.m. and Friday classes are just a few ideas Mr. DeGrow said
could help colleges take on more students. But are Michigan
schools already at capacity to handle those changes?
The answer is yes and no, says Mr. Boulus. The greatest
expansion could come in the regional schools such as Western,
Eastern, Northern, and Central Michigan universities, as well as
community colleges throughout the state, Mr. Boulus said. Other
schools however have reached or are nearing capacity, such as
MSU, where officials have talked about possibly constructing a
new residence hall sometime in the next five years.
Mr. DeGrow said Michigan's 15 public universities, 28 community
colleges and a handful of private schools have provided the
state with a quality system.
"We have a good university system. The issue is somewhat how we
get more people through a good system," he said.
Michigan isn't alone
It's not like Michigan is the only state that is trying or has
attempted to boost the number of graduates in its state. Mr.
Boulus compared the situation here to California, where the
University of California and California State were asked to take
on more students, but without state financial support. There was
such an outcry because the schools had planned for enrollment
cuts, so the state finally gave the schools additional money to
Other states such as Arizona are working the retooled higher
education system theme to get more of those high-skilled
graduates, but Mr. DeGrow said members of the commission and
Michigan residents shouldn't worry what other states are doing.
"It's not a question of competing; it's keeping our people in,"
One intriguing out-of-state example: In Kentucky, the governor
and general assembly were desperate in 1997 to develop a
knowledge-based economy, so it reshaped its higher education
system with House Bill 1.
According to the National Governors Association, which
highlighted Kentucky's case, the reformed system: revamped
higher education targeted for the customers, set performance
goals, provided incentive funds for schools that showed
improvements, maintained state support for a long-term reform
agenda, and established a virtual university and library to help
meet statewide educational goals.
The changes have led to increased enrollment and retention rates
for Kentucky schools, the NGA reports.
In the following months, commission members are scheduled to
meet in their subcommittees and bring forward formal proposals
sometime during the fall. Final recommendations are due to the
governor by January 2005. But there's a lot of work to be done
to get from August to January, even the governor knows that. The
subcommittees will meet again August 19, most likely in Lansing.
Addressing the commission at its first meeting, Ms. Granholm
told the members their task was "not going to be easy," and
"huge but necessary."
"They're taking it seriously," Mr. DeGrow said, including
himself in that statement.
But can the commission swing the type of cultural change where
Michiganders think more about diplomas than about say,
manufacturing? Mr. DeGrow said his goal mirrors that of the
governor's, and yes, a change in mindset is possible, though he
wouldn't go into specifics.
"The direction is correct," he said. "Clearly today your chances
of earning a good living dramatically decrease without college
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