Opinion

Decline in college enrollment 'big problem for the economy’ 

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(Michele Strasz is the Executive Director of the Capital Area College Access Network, a coalition of business, industry, nonprofits, K-12, higher education and government leaders dedicated to increasing postsecondary attainment in Ingham and Eaton counties. Email collegequestions@capcan.org or visit capcan.org for more information.) 

The Class of 2020 got an amazing gift: a high school diploma. However, college enrollment is down across our region and the state. The college enrollment levels among the Class of 2020 after high school graduation was down 8% in Ingham County and 14% in Eaton County from the previous year. An article in the Hechinger Report stated that a decline in community college students, particularly among young men and people of color, “is a big problem for the economy.” 

Systemic barriers to education persist, especially for our students of color, and they are compounded with the job losses and economic insecurity families have experienced during the pandemic. As students of all ages begin to come back to in-person education, we know there will be challenges because of learning loss, mental health concerns and financial needs. 

Yet nearly 70% of jobs in our region require a degree or credential beyond high school. The health care sector was in desperate need of nurses and allied workers even before the pandemic to meet the growing needs of our graying population. The construction industry has been booming, but the impending retirement of a generation of workers means we won’t have enough qualified plumbers, electricians, or HVAC technicians to meet the demand. As enrollment numbers drop, so do potential employees in key sectors. 

There are many “hot jobs” available in our community, but do potential employees have the degree or credentials to fill them? 

There is potentially more funding at the federal, state, and institutional level for college than there has been in years for employees to start, restart or upskill a postsecondary degree or credential. The governor and state legislature recently finalized the state budget, which includes millions of dollars to grow the middle class and educate more workers. 

The specific allocations for post-secondary education include: 

  • $55 million for the Reconnect program to provide a tuition-free pathway to an in-demand industry certificate or associate degree for Michigan adults age 25 and older to help Michiganders get the skills they need to compete for a good-paying, in-demand job.  
  • $25 million for the Futures for Frontliners scholarship program that pays for frontline workers to attend local community college tuition-free. 
  • $40 million for the Going Pro program to expand employer-based training grants that result in industry-recognized credentials and certificates to help raise wages for workers and help employers fill job openings. 
  • $6 million for wraparound supports for Reconnect or Futures for Frontliners to remove barriers to degree completion. 
  • $8 million for pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship training programs that will expand Michigan's talent pool in the construction and building trades.  

The Capital Area College Access Network partners with industry and education to increase the pipeline of students who are ready, participate, and complete postsecondary credentials. Specifically, CapCAN provides year-round college and career advising in 14 high schools in Ingham and Eaton counties. We offer free college and career coaching to young adults up to age 25 who may have disconnected from school or are underemployed because they are lacking a degree or credential beyond high school. We help students of any age and stage in higher education to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. 

Increasing postsecondary education can be a game-changer for people who have been marginalized in the educational process to fill the job pipeline of our regional economy. Don’t you waste that pandemic! Apply to a postsecondary program today with CapCAN’s help.

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