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Michigan’s population suffers – but why?

Yesterday, Bridge Michigan published a nice piece on the state’s population problems, and the impacts it will have on Michigan’s future. You can read it here. The gist is that Michigan’s population is in decline. (It is not. Right now, Michigan’s population is the highest it has ever been.)

Michigan’s population problem is in the percentages. The state has not grown as fast as other states have, so it has dropped from the 7th most populous state to the 10th most populous state. The population drain means that people are moving to and leaving the state at about the same rate. Everyone has slightly different ideas about what’s needed to fix the problem.

According to Mike Jandernoa, the chair of the West Michigan Policy Forum’s Policy Committee, the state would be fine, if only we could fix the K-12 education system. That’s a great political talking point, but frankly, it doesn’t hold much water. Using data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, Michigan’s 4th and 8th grade students suffered steep declines in academic progress from 2011-2018, which coincides with Rick Snyder’s terms as the state’s governor. Since 2018, the academic performance of students in these grades has stabilized.

Frankly, the relative quality of the K-12 system isn’t why people are leaving the state, or not moving here. Realistically, the problem is more centered in its higher education system. Michigan’s median annual household income is below the national average by more than $5,000. People don’t make a lot of money here. So, while Michigan also has a relatively low cost of living (compared to other states), and it has the 16th lowest total tax burden, it also isn’t a place to earn a decent living. The state’s unemployment rate is also chronically high.

Fixing higher education would fix Michigan’s population problem

Michigan has neglected the cultivation of economic opportunity for a very long time. There has been very little effort to cultivate a diverse economy here. With few revitalization efforts, Michigan doesn’t look like a good place to live or work. Chronic underinvestment in higher education has left the state short of highly educated workers.

I’ve said this before. Washtenaw County invests heavily in education. This year alone, the taxpayers will send $70M to Washtenaw Community College. Instead of investing that money into developing high-value academic programs, WCC’s Board of Trustees and its various administrations have redirected our educational dollars to building a quasi-private health club that delivers little to no benefit to WCC’s students.

They’ve also larded up the Administration with a dozen Vice Presidents. (I am not kidding when I say that no community college of WCC’s size anywhere in the United States has 12 Vice Presidents. There is no legitimate reason to have that many Vice Presidents on the payroll.)

Additionally, WCC’s Board has authorized the Administration to provide steep discounts to out-of-district and out-of-state students who enroll in online-only classes. Washtenaw County residents subsidize the attendance costs for students who will never set foot in Washtenaw County. The WCC administration should invest those dollars into programs that benefit Washtenaw County students. Instead, they charge Washtenaw County residents a premium to take online classes while they provide absurdly large discounts to everyone else.

At the same time, the WCC administration has gone all-in on non-degree certificate programs. At this point, WCC issues so many certificates and so few associate degrees that the US Department of Education no longer considers WCC a two-year, degree granting institution.

Meaningful employment opportunities result from higher education. It’s this system Michigan needs to fix.

Photo Credit: jonathanfh , via Flickr