Last week, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Jobs Today, Jobs Tomorrow” program granted $101 million to fund 61 research proposals through the 21st Century Jobs Fund competition. Twenty-eight of these proposals came from Ann Arbor-area researchers. That nearly half of the projects that received funding are based in Washtenaw County is no accident. The county boasts the state’s lowest unemployment rate and was recently selected as the base of Google’s Michigan expansion for one reason – its educated, sophisticated workforce.

Sarah Royce

The success of Washtenaw County relative to the rest of the state is testament to the power of a highly educated workforce to attract investment and jobs. The rest of the state, however, remains focused less on improving its workforce than on ineffective measures like tax cuts as the way to a stronger economy. One cost of the reflexive aversion to taxation has been declining state support for public universities – making a college degree merely more expensive for some, but simply out of reach for too many.

The key to winning back the more than 300,000 jobs Michigan has lost since 2000 is not tax cuts – it is improving access to higher education. It is disturbing, then, that in a study from the Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a California-based research group that measures higher-education statistics, the state received an F for its efforts to make two- and four-year colleges more affordable. If Michigan residents cannot afford to enroll in college, the state’s supply of highly educated workers will not compare well to that of other states. Research and tech firms that could employ thousands will just have to look elsewhere to set up shop.

Enrollment statistics among students aged 18 to 24 in Michigan are rosy – the number of students pursuing a degree has increased since 1992, from 35 to 42 percent. Among adults aged 25 to 49, however, it has fallen – from 5.4 percent in 1992 to 4.4 percent in 2006. Given rising tuition costs, a direct consequence of falling state appropriations, this drop in enrollment is unsurprising, but its implications are troubling. Outsourcing and layoffs have hit this older group of adults hardest, and higher education can be crucial to obtaining jobs as these people look to change their career tracks, often out of the dying manufacturing sector.

With the gubernatorial elections rapidly approaching, it is clear this race will be centered on jobs – where they went and how to bring them back. Taxes, including the demise of the widely-loathed Single Business Tax, have been the center of debate. But lower taxes do not necessarily make for a healthier economy. Indeed, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that on average, states with more highly educated populations have higher incomes per capita than states with low income taxes. Further tax cuts may save residents and businesses money, but in the long term, those year-to-year savings translate to a much larger loss as the state cuts back on funding for social services and higher education.

But what both Granholm and opponent Dick DeVos have failed to fully embrace is that the most important economic investment for the state to make in its attempt to reinvent itself does not lie in resuscitating the manufacturing jobs that propelled its economy forward decades ago; the state’s recovery will require legions of highly educated workers taking advantage of growing high-tech and life sciences industries. For that to happen, the state needs to ensure its citizens have access to affordable higher education – and opportunities and communities vibrant enough to entice those who receive their degrees to remain in the Wolverine State.

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