college affordability

High school seniors have some big decisions to make before they put on their caps and gowns. And because of tuition hikes in Michigan, these decisions are getting more difficult. Is a high school degree enough? Is college worth investing tens of thousands of dollars?

More than ever, students and their families are struggling to pay college’s price tag. In the past 13 years, tuition rates for Michigan’s 15 public universities have risen, on average, 86 percent.

While tuition is rising, median household income in Michigan — roughly $48,000 — is declining. As a result, 63 percent of students in the state have loan debt.

A report published in September by the Center for Michigan (CFM) takes a close look at Michigan’s steep tuition costs and whether college is worth the price. Getting to Work: The Public’s Agenda for Improving Career Navigation, College Affordability, and Upward Mobility in Michigan details the views of 5,000 Michiganders on these topics. CFM gathered these views through polls, online surveys and community conversations.

“We wanted to get a sense of what people want and experience when it comes to Michigan’s job market,” says Amber DeLind, CFM outreach director. “And the results tell us college affordability is a huge issue when it comes to improving the state’s economy and our job market.”

Nearly 90 percent of respondents think that getting a degree or postsecondary training is important, according to the report.

“College degrees help people achieve the kind of career they want,” DeLind says. “If people are not able to afford the proper training, that doesn’t set Michigan up for future success.”

Unfortunately, many Michigan families cannot afford it. For families in the median household income range, tuition chews up 21.6 percent of their income — the fourth highest percentage in the nation.

It is no surprise, then, that 55 percent of those polled in the CFM report think a degree or training is not worth the cost, even though national data show graduates from a four‐​year institution come out ahead. A worker with a high school diploma earns $433 less weekly than a worker with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Public Sector Consultants’ president, Peter Pratt, values the fundamentals taught and the opportunities given in higher education. Pratt’s daughter started her freshman year at the University of Michigan this fall, and he believes the college experience is worth the price tag.

“If your children can learn how to think critically and write well, those skills will serve them in many jobs,” Pratt said. “Most high‐​paying jobs nowadays require people to be critical thinkers and capable writers. So I’m hoping that’s what college will do for my daughter.”

Pratt makes clear, however, that while some colleges provide necessary skills, others have been less successful in helping students launch their careers.

“We need to look at how well schools are preparing students for jobs,” Pratt says. “The bigger issue is that there are two‐ and four‐​year institutions whose programs aren’t providing the foundation young people need to pursue careers in the 21st century economy.”

Recognizing the importance of education in this new economy, CFM will host the Michigan Summit on College Affordability on November 2. The event, which PSC co‐​sponsors, is the last conference in a three‐​part series based on CFM’s report.

Gov. Rick Snyder will present at the conference,

Monday, November 2, 2015
9:00 a.m to 1:45 p.m.
Radisson Lansing at the Capitol
111 N. Grand Avenue
Lansing, Michigan, 48933
$25 for Bridge subscribers
$35 for general admission

as well as the presidents of three Michigan universities — University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University. Additional speakers include experts from organizations like the W.E. Upjohn Institute and New America Foundation.

“We’re particularly excited that Governor Snyder will attend the conference. It shows that Michiganders and state leaders have the same concerns,” DeLind says. “The ultimate goal of the conference is to take what we hear from these experts and the public to continue conversations and find solutions.”

The half‐​day conference will be held at the Lansing Radisson Hotel and is open to the general public. Tickets are $35, or $25 for subscribers to Bridge Magazine, which the Center for Michigan publishes.

The conference is especially exciting for stakeholders like Pratt, who are eager to see the public participate in these conversations.

“I can’t think of a forum that tackles college affordability like this one,” Pratt says. “The national experts, university presidents and legislators presenting are top‐​notch. I think we’re going to get a nice range of perspectives on this issue, and hopefully come out of the conference with a few solutions.”