Tia T. Gordon
Institute for Higher Education Policy
202 861 8227

Can Increasing Access to College Degrees for Underserved Michigan Residents Boost the State's Economy?

New Research Shows Significant Investment in Higher Education Could Offer Enormous Benefits for Both the State and Its Residents

Washington, D.C., May 6, 2008—Steady declines in Michigan’s primary commercial industries, including automotive technology and manufacturing, make it increasingly difficult for residents to succeed without a college degree. The state’s current unemployment rate of 7.2 percent compared with the national rate of 5.1 percent highlights the absolute necessity of expanding access to postsecondary education in Michigan for the well-being of the state’s economic future. However, Michigan residents are more likely than residents of the United States as a whole to have only a high school diploma, and college enrollment rates in the state are below the national average for its traditional college-age (18–24) population, particularly low-income and minority residents.

In a new policy report issued by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), researchers found that underserved regions and populations in Michigan face significant barriers in accessing postsecondary education. The study, Higher Education in Michigan: Overcoming Challenges to Expand Access, undertakes a comprehensive examination of higher education access in three diverse areas of the state: Macomb County, the city of Saginaw, and six rural counties in the Lower Peninsula. While findings from the three regions varied due to differing demographic and geographic conditions, a number of consistent patterns were found, including concerns about the affordability of a college education; poor public transportation systems; a lack of easily accessible four-year institutions; and, above all, the need to develop a college-going culture among Michigan residents.

Macomb County

  • Affordability is a key concern for Macomb residents as county residents from disadvantaged backgrounds may not be able to afford to attend college. In 2005, 58 percent of traditional college-age residents in the highest family income quartile in Macomb County were enrolled in higher education. This is in marked contrast to college-age residents in the lowest-income quartile, 83 percent of whom were not enrolled in higher education.
  • Another concern is the lack of opportunity for a four-year degree. Without an adequate public transportation system in the county, Macomb residents with heavy work and family responsibilities or those without cars find it difficult to travel almost 20 miles to the nearest universities (Oakland and Wayne State).


  • One of the most racially diverse urban areas in the state of Michigan is Saginaw, which has low college enrollment and degree attainment rates, particularly for minority residents. In 2000, about 10 percent of Saginaw’s population was of the traditional college age (18–24 years old); of this group, only 17 percent of Black city residents and 14 percent of Hispanic residents in this age group were enrolled in college. Among Saginaw residents age 25 and older, about 14 percent of White Saginaw residents had attained a bachelor’s or graduate degree as of 2000, compared with only 7 percent of Black residents and 4 percent of Hispanics.
  • Given these problems, Saginaw residents are concerned about the lack of a college-bound culture and believe that existing college programs could be enhanced.

Alpena and Surrounding Counties

  • Given the size of the region, its rural nature, and its relatively dispersed population, Alpena and its neighboring counties offer the biggest challenge to higher education access. A little more than a quarter (26 percent) of the 18- to 24-year-olds in the region are enrolled in college or graduate school, which is substantially lower than the statewide rate of 39 percent.
  • Many area residents are not convinced of the value of higher education or that having a college education leads to a better life. Some interviewees said that in the past it was common for local high school graduates to either enlist in the armed forces or enter the workforce and that this attitude toward higher education persists.

Each region analyzed in the report provides a better understanding of the college access issues that can be found throughout Michigan and helps inform broad policy recommendations that may improve higher education access in the state. “The benefits of investing in higher education in Michigan through policy, expansion, and completion initiatives are simultaneously advantageous for both individuals and the state,” said Thomas Parker, IHEP interim president and senior associate. “It is important that access to higher education remains a key element of policy discussions in Michigan to help spur on significant increases in degree attainment among its residents, particularly in these three regions, to ultimately bring about expanded opportunities for the entire state.”


  • Address college access issues at the state level. Establish a state higher education agency or statewide board of regents with the authority to design policies and initiatives to increase college enrollment and degree attainment rates across the state. Create an initiative to address rural college access issues, with particular emphasis on involvement by rural community colleges.
  • Establish better working relationships among and new roles for the state’s two- and four-year postsecondary institutions. Develop a uniform articulation agreement between public two- and four-year institutions. Allow selected community colleges in regions with insufficient higher education access to confer baccalaureate degrees in high-need fields.
  • Develop better public transportation systems, especially in areas where residents must travel to reach a postsecondary institution.
  • Invest in long-term financial support for college students and in programs that encourage college attendance. Support passage of proposed legislation to create “Promise Zones” in areas of the state with high youth poverty. In these zones, high school graduates would be guaranteed last-dollar scholarships to in-state institutions funded by a combination of public and private dollars. Create a statewide program that improves college financing literacy for families and students.

The report, Higher Education in Michigan: Overcoming Challenges to Expand Access, was developed in response to the challenges outlined in the groundbreaking 2004 report from the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth. Appointed by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D-Mich.), the group was charged with finding ways to increase the number of college graduates in Michigan. Among the commission’s recommendations was a call for action at the community level to increase educational attainment.

The full report, Higher Education in Michigan: Overcoming Challenges to Expand Access, is available free for download on IHEP’s Web site at www.ihep.org. Funding for the report was provided by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a Michigan-based organization that supports children, families, and communities as they strengthen and create conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and as contributors to the larger community and society.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is an independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world. Established in 1993, the Washington, D.C.-based organization uses unique research and innovative programs to inform key decision makers who shape public policy and support economic and social development. IHEP’s web site, www.Ihep.org, features an expansive collection of higher education information available free of charge and provides access to some of the most respected professionals in the fields of public policy and research.