Blog: Caroline Altman Smith

Noodle on this: Just 32 percent of Michigan's working-age residents hold at least a two-year college degree. Gov. Granholm and The Kresge Foundation want to double this figure by 2025. Caroline Altman Smith, a program officer at Kresge, will spotlight community colleges and cover the importance of college access (and success) for Detroiters.

Post 3: Going for the Education Gold

"By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Achieving President Obama's lofty goal, stated last year in his first joint address to Congress, means radically disrupting our current trajectory: only 39 percent of our fellow Americans will earn a two- or four-year college degree, and this number has been stagnant for four decades.  Meanwhile, right next door in Canada, the 60 percent rate is the highest in the world.  In Michigan, we are seven percentage points shy of the nothing-to-brag-about national average: only 32 percent of the state's 5.2 million working-age adults (aged 25-64 years) have at least a two-year degree.  The numbers vary widely by county, from the state's best educated county (Washtenaw, home of U-M, at 62.4 percent) to the UP county with the lowest college attainment levels (Luce at 14.5 percent).
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, these numbers also vary significantly within the metro area:

Oakland: 53.3%
Macomb: 34.9%
Wayne: 26.5%

Needless to say, these varied rates have significant impact on wages, tax revenues and the ability to attract new businesses.
What used to qualify as best in the world is now tenth among developed countries, just ahead of Finland.  This is not an area in which the U.S. can or should be below average.

We don't let countries like France, Italy and Korea beat us in pop culture or in piling up Olympic medals—why should we let them beat us in the much more critical realm of educational attainment? 

These other industrialized nations have decided that getting more of their citizens into and through college deserves and demands an innovative, equitable approach and generous, focused resources.
Part of the reason these other countries have made more progress than we have in recent years is because they view higher education as a public good, and not a private one.  Consequently, they are willing to make it as accessible and affordable as possible for people to pursue.  As anyone who makes a monthly payment to "Aunt Sallie" knows, in the U.S. we pay comparatively staggering rates for the privilege of attending college.  We believe a college degree will raise your personal earning power and help you get ahead in life, so your parents should start saving up from the moment of conception and you should be willing to work hard and pay market rates to get an education. 

Many other countries more heavily subsidize college, because they know that college graduates live longer and healthier lives than those without degrees, are overall more civically engaged (as measured by voting, volunteer work, blood donations, and other indicators), and earn approximately $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school degree (which means a stronger tax base).  We know that a college degree pays off for individuals and for our society—but how much of a difference does it really make?
The group CEOs for Cities has done some fascinating research on the economic benefits that accrue to cities that raise their college attainment levels.   They've determined that "Nearly 60 percent of a city's success, as measured by per capita income, is explained by the percentage of college graduates in a city's population."  Small improvements in this regard make a big difference: even a one-percentage point increase, which they call the Talent Dividend, can mean billions more dollars in economic activity. 

In the Detroit metro area, raising the college attainment rate by only 1 percent would be worth $3.4 billion and would mean creating 29,738 additional new college graduates. 

Collectively, the effects could be enormous in cities across America: "An increase in college attainment rates by one percentage point in the largest 51 metro areas yields $124 billion in additional personal income each year for the nation." This framing is so compelling in part because it takes the sometimes touchy-feely realm of educational opportunity and translates it into cold, hard economic reality--all with a hopeful and can-do spin, because increasing anything by 1 percent doesn't sound overly daunting. 

CEOs for Cities has launched a National Talent Dividend Network, and Detroit has signed on as one of the 19 founding members that pledge to raise their attainment level by 1 percent in the next 2-4 years.  Good for Detroit! This is a great sign and an achievable goal and will be good for Detroit and good for the country. 

And how do we get more students to take the steps needed to get into college? Watch this space tomorrow for information about an innovative campaign to do just that.