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Article of Interest - College

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Bridges4Kids LogoNewsmaker 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 declining.

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 welding."

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 percent.

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 necessarily money.

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 expand.

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," he said.

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.

Moving forward

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 education."


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