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 5: The Workhorses of Higher Education

The helicopters roared overhead, the sirens wailed, the procession of SUVs zoomed by, the flashbulbs popped, the press badges flashed, the VIPs wilted in the summer heat and finally the president appeared at… a community college!  Last summer, President Obama chose Macomb Community College as the site of his first visit to Michigan since his Inauguration.  At Macomb, he announced that the nation needed five million more community college graduates by 2025 than it is currently on track to produce, and he pledged to push for speedy congressional approval of a major new source of funds to help accomplish that goal.

Fast-forward to the present day.  While only about $2 billion of the originally hoped-for $12 billion has survived the budget reconciliation process, this still represents an unprecedented level of federal attention and resources for these institutions.  The nation's 1,200 community colleges now enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduates, and are receiving increased recognition for the critical role they play in training and re-training workers during the recession.  There are 28 community colleges in Michigan, including several in Metro Detroit (Macomb Community College, Oakland Community College , Wayne County Community College District, and Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn).  

These colleges serve more than 150,000 local students, including those seeking associate's degrees, the opportunity to transfer to a four-year college, job training, or recreation.  (The potentially motley crew can make for moderately entertaining sitcom viewing).  Community colleges have to juggle the educational needs of all of these folks, which requires impressive resourcefulness and flexibility.  These colleges are uniformly overworked, underfunded and these days, over-enrolled: many of them have experienced student surges of 10 percent or more in the past year.  While community colleges generally pride themselves on keeping their doors open to all students, Wayne County Community College had to cap enrollment this spring for the first time in its 40-year history.  The enrollment growth has been so great that some colleges around the country are forced to hold classes in the middle of the night.

The mission of community colleges has historically been access (y'all come), but the field is under pressure to shift its focus to improving the rates at which students succeed (as measured by whether or not they eventually leave school with a certificate or degree).  Graduation rates vary significantly between and within colleges, but generally only about 1 in 3 community college students will earn a credential or two- or four-year degree within six years.  Our nation's education system hemorrhages students at every step of the pipeline, including higher education; this is hugely inefficient and inequitable.  If we focused on doing a better job of helping the students who get to college actually graduate, we could practically double the nation's college graduation rate.

Michigan Radio reported yesterday:

A state house committee takes up the budget for Michigan's community colleges this week.  The state senate has already discussed cutting community college funding by 3 percent.  That on top of local tax revenue declines, could translate into a lean budget year ahead for Michigan's community colleges.

The current generation is the first in U.S. history to be on track to be less well-educated than its parents.  To improve this situation, we need to make sure that the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college remains strong.  But we also need to ensure that community colleges--which serve disproportionate numbers of low-income students, students of color, and people who are the first in their families to attend college--have the resources and support needed to help students finish what they start.  Strengthening institutions like community colleges to achieve the goal of significantly increasing the college attainment rate could be a major game-changer for our region and our country.