Following statewide elections in which higher education was a point of debate, this article is the second in a series examining the changing landscape of higher education funding in Michigan, and what those changes mean for four-year universities.

When Gov. Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State address in January, he discussed career technical training programs, associate’s degrees, dual enrollment and other higher education pathways.

“One of our goals is to be number one in skilled trade training,” Snyder announced in the address.

However, while he made a point to emphasize these programs in the address, the governor did not mention any of the state’s four-year colleges and universities.

Snyder’s focus on options beyond four-year universities isn’t new. Over his tenure, among other initiatives, the governor has introduced a new apprenticeship program in the state. As part of the GOP agenda, this legislative session has featured bills to increase dual enrollment opportunities for high school students.

While he’s also spent time addressing four-year schools, these initiatives have caught the attention of educational institutions around Michigan, many of whom are wondering what this new emphasis will mean for their future.

Give and take?

In public appearances over his tenure, the governor has stressed that his focus is on bringing more career readiness to the states’ higher education offerings, not taking something away.

Speaking at his annual education summit last March, Snyder said he wants higher education to adopt a broader approach in preparing students for the workforce.

“(Michigan education) is too often focused on a diploma or a degree, and not saying, ‘Are you career ready?’” he said at the time.

In a public appearance in Macomb late last year, Snyder said the idea individuals need a college degree has been reinforced too much, and he wants to swing the balance back, The Macomb Daily reported.

“The part we messed up is that we didn’t say with equal fervor and equal passion (to teens) that you should also look at skilled trades and you should look at career tech-ed … the whole country messed up on this issue and we were a part of messing up on this issue.”

Many higher education policymakers and university officials across the state say they are optimistic about that idea of an addition, not a replacement, especially in regards to how those programs are funded in the state budget.

In Snyder’s fiscal year 2016 budget recommendation this February, he doubled the amount of money allocated to skilled trades programs — from $10 million to $20 million. However, appropriations for universities and colleges also received an increase of 2 percent, in line with previous increases over the past few years.

Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said in an interview before the budget’s release that she did not believe universities would have to make concessions as a result of increased attention to trades programs.

“I am very reluctant to identify the governor’s focus as being singly focused, and an either or proposition where winners and losers are identified as coming out of that kind of a discussion,” Wilbanks said. “I prefer to think about the governor’s comments as not an either-or opportunity, and I think that’s really important. What I think people will try to do on occasion is divide and conquer: if we just put more resources into this area of education, that means someone else is going to lose out. And I do not believe that is the intention of the governor and other policy makers.”

State Rep. Amanda Price (R–Holland), chair of the House Education Committee, said she sees skilled trades programs as a way to better match student needs.

“Some people are going to feel that their skills are served better by four-year universities, and they want to go in that direction,” she said. “A lot of kids … they know they’re going to work with their hands, or know they’re going to work in the skilled trades and then that’s a better fit for them. So I think it’s finding what is the best fit for that individual, as opposed to a zero-sum game.”

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), who serves on the Appropriations subcommittee on Higher Education, said while he did not think that the increased attention towards alternative higher education routes would have an impact on university funding, it’s hard to ever be sure.

“I don’t personally see a direct conflict between that and university funding,” he said. “Of course there’s always a conflict between any funding line and another. I would see that more as a conflict than say, our corrections expenses.”

Speaking before the budget recommendation release, Dale Tahtinen, vice president of government relations at Michigan Technological University, said he thinks the impact on a university’s budget would depend on the focus of that university’s programs.

“Hopefully (the financial impact) will be minimal, but it may have an impact, probably on some more than others depending on what they offer,” Tahtinen said.


The governor’s push for career education has manifested in several distinct ways.

During his State of the State address, Snyder highlighted one of his earliest initiatives — the Michigan Advanced Technical Training Program. MAT2 launched in 2013, after the governor observed a similar program during a 2012 visit to Germany.

Ryan Hundt, a senior program manager for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Talent Enhancement unit, runs MAT2, which combines both job training and in-classroom learning. He said when it comes to Michigan, the program is the first of its kind.

“There have been apprenticeship programs around the state and around the country for quite some time,” he said. “The MAT2 program was modeled on the German dual education system, and the German dual education system kind of blends components of a traditional classroom setting with employer on-the-job training.”

What makes the MAT2 program unique, he said, is that it is employer-driven, based on connecting students with potential future employers, rather than only teaching job skills.

MAT2 currently is involved in three community colleges on four college campuses: Macomb Community College at their south campus in Warren, Oakland Community College on the Auburn Hills and Orchard Ridge campuses, and Henry Ford College in Dearborn.

More than 90 students are currently enrolled.

In 2013, MAT2 had partnered with Oakland Community College and Henry Ford Community College and only offered a mechatronics program, with just 31 students enrolled. In 2014, with the governor’s support, the programs expanded to include Macomb Community College, adding a technical product design program, an information technology program and enrolling more than an additional 60 students.

This year, MAT2 plans to expand to both include a new technician program, and move outside of the Southeast Michigan.

“We’re planning on partnering with Lansing Community College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Delta College in Saginaw, North Central Community College in Petoskey and Baker College in Cadillac,” Hundt said. “We’re hoping that MAT2 is not just an educational and training model for Michigan, but we’re hoping that it can be replicated throughout the U.S. at some point as well.”

Hundt said he saw several benefits to the governor’s focus on the skilled trades, including increased awareness of them as options.

“It also makes programs like MAT2 seem like a viable educational aid career option,” Hundt said. “Especially for students that may not necessarily know what they’d like to do after high school, or they may be interested in a particular field but they don’t necessarily want to go off to a four-year college or a university.”

Participant Rebekka Neumann said she fell in this category, and was encouraged by her teachers and robotics team coaches to join the MAT2 program after graduation.

“I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do after high school. I figured I would just go to a community college and get general ed classes out of the way and then figure out where I wanted to go from there,” Neumann said. “The program was just a perfect fit.”

Neumann enrolled in the mechatronics program and in 2014 was named as one of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ 30 under 30.

When asked about what made MAT2 the best choice for her, Neumann said it was the work experience. Upon completion of the program, Neumann committed to the company she interned with, EMAG LLC, which is based in Farmington Hills, Michigan and Salach, Germany, for two more years.

Hundt said the higher education institutions and trades programs have a symbiotic relationship.

“I think it’s mutually beneficial for both,” Hundt said. “I think that they both complement one another because the idea behind investment in skilled trades training and for technical education is that we want to be able to offer high school students viable career opportunities in these fields. We want to make sure that students when they’re graduating from high school have real career options, real educational training options as well.”

Community colleges

Another major piece of the governor’s focus, in contrast, has been on community colleges and access to dual enrollment. The governor has personal experience in the area — because of dual enrollment, he was able to enroll in the University of Michigan as a high school junior and complete three degrees at the University by the time he was 23.

High school students have long been able to take community college courses, with universities accepting those credits to count toward the students’ degree. For the most part, students have had to physically go to the campus to take the classes.

Recently, three bills from the GOP caucus — Senate Bills 36, 37 and 38 — have been introduced in the Michigan senate. The legislation would allow high school students to take college-level classes and earn credits without leaving their high school campus through classes taught by certified high school teachers.

Price, the House Education Committee chair, said community colleges were a key part of the governor’s emphasis on career and technical education.

“A lot of young people can get training at their (independent school district), or in their local schools on career and tech stuff, but community college also adds another layer to that,” she said.

State Sen. Darwin Booher (R–Evart) introduced SB-36 and SB-37, and serves as the legislature’s chair of community colleges in Michigan; he thought those bills in particular helped level the playing field for some students.

“Part of the kids that didn’t have jobs after school or didn’t have some kind of requirement, they could go (to a university), but not every student can,” Booher said. “A lot of them have jobs, and a lot of them have athletics. This is the fair way to do it; they’re already there.”

Senate Bill 38 would then allow high school students to concurrently enroll in university classes while in high school. As of now, Ferris State University is the only university offering concurrent enrollment for high school students.

Universities, however, have been hesitant to commit to this set of initiatives.

Wilbanks highlighted the current options for high school students to take AP courses and dual enroll in community colleges in their area.

“At this moment I am not aware of a large number of students who have expressed an interest in dual enrollment types of opportunities,” she said. “The bills that have been introduced will get a fair hearing, I’m certain, and I think there will be a healthy debate around the kinds of practices that those bills are suggesting might make it easier for students. In general, we believe however, there is a value to learning in an environment that is college-like.”

Matt McLogan, vice president for university relations at Grand Valley State University, expressed similar sentiments.

“For the time being, we believe that our current programs in supporting AP and dual enrollment are appropriate for now, but this is a work in progress,” McLogan said. “Let me say we do think that students ought to avail themselves of early opportunities to arrive at college with credit.”

University enrollment declines

The long-term impact of these programs is still unclear.

MAT2 is a three-year program, meaning the first graduating class will finish in 2016. It’s still early in the legislative session, and SB-36, 37 and 38 are in committee, a comparatively long way from being voted into law. Community college enrollment rates in the state have remained mostly stagnant since Snyder took office in 2011, declining by slightly more than 30,000 students. The state’s skilled trades still exhibit a deficit between available jobs — estimated to number in the tens of thousands — and Michigan residents qualified to fill them.

At least in Michigan, it looks like students could be looking for alternatives to the higher education opportunities traditionally offered.

In a House Fiscal Agency’s Background Briefing published in December 2014 by Marilyn Peterson, senior fiscal analyst, university enrollment experienced its first decline in the 2012-2013 academic year since 1994-1995. The trend has continued in the 2013-2014 year and is expected to continue, with a projected 19 percent decrease in public high school graduates from the 2007-2008 fiscal year to the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2013 only 66 percent of U.S. high school graduates were enrolled in any form of higher education institution in the fall after high school. Of those first-time full-time students, only 59 percent completed a degree in four to six years.

Hundt said he saw these statistics as further proof for the need of programs alternative to the traditional university track.

“I think we’re missing the mark with a pretty significant sized demographic for our young folks that may not be aware of programs like MAT2 or dual enrollment opportunities,” Hundt said.

Of the representatives from multiple state colleges interviewed for this piece, none of them experienced a decrease in enrollment uniquely. Several — such as the University of Michigan — experienced increases.

Both Mark Burnham, the vice president for governmental affairs at Michigan State University, and McLogan, from Grand Valley, noted that while the state of Michigan as a whole was experiencing a decrease in post-secondary enrollment, it may be due to the fact that there are smaller graduating classes in the state.

In 2008-2009, the four-year graduation cohort from public, state high schools was under 110,000 according to state data. In 2012-2013, the four-year graduation cohort numbered 98,299. According to a recent Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report that number could drop as low as 86,000 by the 2027-2028 school year.

“All of us in higher education look very carefully at the demographics and understand that there are fewer high school students available to go to college,” McLogan said. “Two points come to mind. First, we seem not to be affected by it as yet, but we’re always mindful of it. And second, and more important, even though the total number of high school graduates is going down, that’s not an excuse for a low going to college rate.”

While both officials attributed the decrease in enrollment to be, in part, due to the lower graduation classes, they also stressed the fact that Michigan needs to increase its rate of student enrollment into post-secondary institutions.

Overall, they said they saw the governor’s initiatives as a way to get more students back in school, a similar sentiment to that expressed by other officials.

“Michigan historically has sent only a small number of its high school graduates to college,” McLogan said. “We’re an advocate for changing that. We believe that there are many more high school students in Michigan who are qualified for two-year or four-year college experience after high school who are not availing themselves of that opportunity, and they should.”

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