A recent report shows that Michigan higher education is a failure; a failure to the point that our state gets a letter grade of “F”. We are not alone, of course, but that doesn’t matter in the least. As a state, we have continued to fail the young people who have been told since they could comprehend anything related to education that a proper and successful life MANDATES a college education, and although that conversation has begun to change to a degree, we all know that many consider you a complete failure if you do not receive a college degree.
I have been a broadcaster and advocate for public education for the last 22 years in a profound way, both publicly and privately. As my three children rose through the ranks of their K-12 opportunity, I was a very involved parent in many ways: In the classroom, going to field trips, attending school board meetings, and being a very active member of what we called the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). I’d also be the first to admit that, when I had the chance to be a more active student, both in my K-12 days and in college, I was not sharp enough to take advantage of what was available to me academically, But, all that being said, the opportunity existed, and to the shock of some, I did succeed and learned how to learn. I expanded my opportunities in extracurricular activities, become a better-rounded person, and a much better advocate as a result of both using the tools that were there and wasting some of them as well. It’s part of our maturation, right? It’s part of the progression from childhood to young adult life, and then to full-blown membership in being a productive and purposeful adult, or so the story goes.
The report I mentioned was produced by an organization named The Young Invincibles. I happened to meet some of the founding members of this group back in 2012 when I broadcasted my show from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. I was not just impressed with their mission, but with their commitment to both their mission and to the idea that all people who desire higher education should have access to it.
Now, this should not be a lofty goal, but it surely is. As independent Senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sander has placed higher education at the center of his campaign. The conversation is worthy and the reality is daunting but solvable, it really is, if only there were political will to solve it, like so many of the other blocks that plague our modern day society.
But, back to Michigan and the way it is failing our young people. My advocacy has mostly been for K-12. It’s not that I have ignored higher education, but you have to take the K-12 journey before you can even consider the higher education path.
For those of you who do not remember, there really was a time when, if you wanted college, you could find a way to do it. It was not effortless, it was not necessarily easy, but is was possible for all. Guidance counselors in high schools had the time and resources to walk you through the process. There were career days in schools that were all inclusive. Everything from college representatives coming to meet with students to vocational education opportunities to explore. There were trades and people with great knowledge in all areas of interest who were made available to you. Your choices were there for the making and taking.
Then, well then education money became a source of profit for those who saw a chance to take tax dollars and those with that money found a way to elect lawmakers, most of a certain political party, to take their agenda and run with it. We are now experiencing what that manifested.
Because, at the heart of politics, finger-pointing has become the norm, many will point to Jennifer Granholm, our most recent past governor, and proudly and loudly point out that she was responsible for cutting funding to higher education. And they would be right, save one small detail: She was dealing with an economy that gutted core job opportunities and that changed the way we did everything in this state. The auto and manufacturing industries almost disappeared and I will give both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama kudos for saving not just those industries but, in the process, giving America a chance to redefine its core values. Even as these industries struggled to reinvent themselves, they, whether intended or not, made us all realize the importance of education and what comes from it or is taken away if it is not financially supported. In Michigan, in spite of what our governor tells us and in spite of what think tanks exclaim, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, taking his marching orders from his political donors and masters, has single-handedly destroyed K-12 education in Michigan and made college practically out of reach for way too many young people.
A four-year degree has become a story of lore and a six-year degree, if you can find a job, the time, the opportunity, and the support of parents, friends, and family, might get you that coveted success. Now the challenge is what will that degree get you? Will it get you a job at all? Will that job give you an income that allows you to pay off student loans? Will that job give you an opportunity to buy a home? Get married? Have a family?
There are two reports (HERE and HERE) that lay out in great detail the challenges and the opportunities that lay ahead. Both reports and much of the support information provided are presented and written by people who have profound passion for education at all levels. Both reports show in factual detail how Michigan has starved a student’s dream and leave little to no real options for those who have the talent and desire to achieve and succeed in a society that needs smart, qualified people to do the work of those who are nearing the end of their professional lives and ready to move over so you can move up. This is more than just a statement. The reality is that it is a problem with consequences that we are now just beginning to realize and struggle with.
Politicians love to talk college, they love to talk opportunity, and they love to say they are “all in” on education. But clearly, and all we have to do is look around us to see that actions do NOT match word and that both K-12 and higher education in Michigan are disasters that cannot and will not be fixed by just a new governor and a new majority in the legislature, not immediately anyway.
When the average grant to a Michigan college student is literally $225, yes that is $225, no zeros missing, and we juxtapose that against the cost of tuition, room, and board, can we realistically expect this to be good news? Hell no. When the cost of spending per student in higher education has been reduced by over $2,000 per year in real time dollars and tuition is rising in some cases by double digits on an annual basis, and we have a Governor who pretends to believe that he is a miracle worker but then refuses to raise the money spent per student, it’s not hard to see why we have such a fundamental problem with opportunity, educational opportunity, in Michigan. And there is not a scenario that I can see that will lead us to a better path.
Michigan continues to top national lists that underscore that we are the least transparent and least accountable state government in the country. When dollars to balance the state budget are needed and our governor goes to education funding first and foremost, deciding that the general budget is more important than students, well, we get what we’ve got, right? Now we are faced with a multi-million dollar hole in the Detroit Public Schools’ budget. It’s a hole which was created and crafted by Governor Snyder’s hand-picked Emergency Managers who spend tax dollars for new office decor, limo rides and drivers, and police protection. This speaks volumes about Michigan politics, the GOP, and where public education, both K-12 and higher education, fit into the bigger picture.
Once again, Michigan finds itself at the top of a list that is embarrassing and degrading. But, all of that aside, it puts Michigan at a competitive disadvantage when we are trying to attract new businesses, new industry, and a new group critical thought leaders and creative thinkers. While the conversation about how to retain our best and brightest young people who can and will drive a new economy and a new paradigm in shaping a future that has historical and impactful change, chances are those same young people will have found another state and another opportunity elsewhere for obvious reasons. People are leaving Michigan still. If there were to be a reshaping of Congressional Districts today, Michigan would again lose another Congressional seat, further weakening our political clout inside the beltway and emphasizing that Governor Snyder has NOT made Michigan a place we want to be.
There is an old adage which says, if money can solve a problem, then it is not really a problem after all. If that is true, what in the hell are we waiting for?