Published in Economic Development

Biz groups back Whitmer plan to boost degree-holders

BY Friday, March 29, 2019 02:46pm

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and three other Michigan business groups backed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal to increase the number of state residents with a college degree and create a scholarship fund to help students go to school after high school.

Citing the talent shortage, the groups pledged to work with the governor as the MI Opportunity Scholarship and Reconnect programs “are developed and negotiated within the legislative process” in Lansing, and offered principles on which to base both.

“Nearly every large employer in Michigan faces the same major challenge: Talent attraction and retention,” said Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, a Detroit-based statewide business roundtable. “We want to have homegrown talent sustaining our state’s productivity and continued economic growth, and to achieve that we need to boost the number of residents who attain a post-secondary degree or certification. Gov. Whitmer quickly identified this challenge and brought forth an attainable goal for us to all work toward.”

In her February State of the State address, Whitmer set an ambitious goal of having 60 percent of state residents between the ages of 16 and 64 hold some form of postsecondary credential by 2030. As of 2016, 44 percent of residents had earned a degree or some form of skills certification.

Specifically, she wants to form MI Opportunity Scholarship to provide two years of community college, or tuition assistance at a four-year college, for students who graduate high school with at least a B average. She wants to launch the scholarship this spring for students to use in the fall of 2020.

Another proposed program, called Michigan Reconnect, which is modeled after an initiative in Tennessee, would train adults for the in-demand skills they need to get a job or advance in an existing position.

Business Leaders for Michigan and the Grand Rapids Chamber this week joined with the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Detroit Regional Chamber to offer a “high level” of support to both proposals. The support came with a series of principles “needed to ensure effectiveness” of both programs as they’re crafted with the legislature.

“We want to have a hand in shaping these programs and what the legislation looks like,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We all agree with the governor’s goal,” Johnson said. “We can all agree that’s a smart, long-term economic strategy.”

The principles the four business groups offered with their support for the governor’s proposals include:

• Accountability, including a “robust” statewide database tracking student progress and achievement and requiring universities, community colleges, trade schools and certificate programs to annually publish enrollment, persistence, and graduation rates by degree or certificate program. “The program should maintain the ability to shift resources away from educational institutions or certificate programs that do not achieve a high level of student completion (or in some cases successful transfer),” according to the set of principles.

• Student support, including mentoring, career counseling and academic advising, “to ensure high levels of program completion.” The MI Opportunity Scholarship and Reconnect “should require that participating educational institutions adopt a support/success model based on researched best practices, not repackaged existing programs (unless they can substantiate program effectiveness).”

• Economic alignment such as retaining the “Going Pro” employee skilled trades training fund that totals $29.4 million in the state’s current fiscal year. The fund has so far provided $9.9 million to West Michigan employers in the 2019 fiscal year, including $4.7 million in Kent County, $2 million in Ottawa County and $1 million in Muskegon County, Johnston said. “That’s been very successful in West Michigan,” he said. “We really get a lot out of it in West Michigan.” Schools also should “have a regular and meaningful interface with the business community to ensure that courses, programs and certificates that lead to a high probability of employment are offered. That interface should also provide students with an opportunity to explore career options and have access to information in one place on high demand technical fields (including career profiles with wage/demand data),” according to the group’s principles.

• Student ownership such as requirements for students to remain continuously enrolled “with very limited exceptions (i.e. military deployment, illness, etc).”

• Tuition caps which would put restraints on annual tuition increases for schools that receive public funding programs.

• Maintaining the state’s business climate and competitiveness, meaning that “no business tax increase should be tied to or associated with these proposals. State funding should come from existing reallocated dollars.”

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