Does Michigan value education? For the success of our state, one would hope so, but for years we have heard that the value of a higher education has been called
into question. Most recently, Glengariff Group’s survey for the Detroit Regional Chamber reported that only 25% of parents viewed a college education as essential for success.

Regardless of public opinion, the data demonstrates that there is no more significant mechanism for social mobility than a college credential. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) estimates that, by 2031, 72% of jobs will require a post-secondary qualification.

To become a top ten state, we know that Michigan needs more students to pursue and complete post-secondary programs. Rather than focus on the perceived value of a college degree, why not shift our attention to the steps required to make post-secondary success a reality for more students?

Competing Narratives

Many economic, social and political factors shape the public’s opinion of higher education. However, one persistent challenge that complicates the issue is inconsistent messaging.

As their student progresses through school, families receive a range of conflicting advice. Parents are told that four-year institutions are the only viable path to success, only to turn around and hear that students seeking high-paying positions should concentrate on training for a trade.

The truth is that none of these messages need to compete. Skills-based certificates and four-year degrees are both valuable post-secondary credentials. Our role as advocates is to ensure that all students have the information, opportunities, support and resources to attain the qualifications necessary to build rewarding and sustainable careers.

It’s easy to lose sight of the progress that has been made in fostering K-12 to higher education pipelines. But aligning those efforts — and the messages they champion — has never been more critical. Students across our state, in every community, need all of us to work together so that they can understand their options, create a realistic pathway to a good paying career and thrive as they pursue post-secondary attainment.

If we do this, these narratives can be blended into one cohesive plan—a prosperous future where we put students’ interests, needs and desires first and help them find the post-secondary pathway that works for them.

Personal Connections

While broader perception trends provide some insight into the educational landscape, they do not represent the whole picture. Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) has long recognized that it is the personal connections and experiences that puts the value in perspective for students.

Campus visits, workshops and college fairs help students imagine themselves at a post-secondary institution — be it two-year, four-year or technical. As the overwhelming majority of students DRDFS works with will be the first in their family to graduate from a post-secondary institution, these types of experiences are particularly impactful.

The results are conclusive. 100% of DRDFS participants graduate high school on time. 87% go on to enroll in post-secondary education within 12 months, against a 49% national average for students from low-income schools.

For organizations like DRDFS, the next challenge is to find ways to amplify these efforts and expand partnerships to scale impact. Initiatives such as the newly established Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential (MiLEAP) are a promising start. Aligning efforts from early childhood to career, this department has the potential to change Michigan’s trajectory. One of the three broad goals of the department is to “prioritize community, regional, and state partnerships that help our students succeed.” Partnerships are going to be essential to reach the state’s goal of increasing the number of Michigander’s with a skill certificate or college degree to 60% by 2030. Alignment and partnerships are the key to ensuring students have the personal connections in order to navigate the path through post-secondary education and reach their goals.

A Critical Moment

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment grew 2.1% in fall 2023 — the first increase since the beginning of the pandemic. The appetite for higher education is there. That means we have reached a pivotal moment of opportunity.

Now is the time to listen to our communities, understand the barriers they are experiencing and provide clear, collaborative solutions. When it comes to perceptions around post-secondary education, the data matters. If we hope to change the narrative, though, we must center the voices of communities and programs helping rewrite the script.

Thanks to the work happening across Michigan, we already know many of the strategies that will encourage students to enroll and persist in post-secondary institutions. It will take a concerted, consistent investment at the state level to elevate best practices and pipeline programs to create an inclusive and equitable culture that demonstrates the impact that higher education can have for each student, family and community.

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