Lesson plan

Combatting the systematic disinvestment in higher education.

May 27, 2014 at 11:44 am

There are few things as valuable on as many levels as education. For one thing, it’s fun just to learn new stuff.

Most people with active minds know all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily related to making a living. But these days, having some form of higher education is more essential than ever.

News flash: Unless you’re born with money, or plan on a nasty, brutal, and short life of crime, you need some form of learning beyond high school — that is, if you ever have any hope of having, like, a good car, a house, or anything like a comfortable life.

(Sorry, Tommy. They’re not handing out high-paying jobs to unskilled labor on the assembly lines — or anywhere — anymore.)

Nor will they ever again. However, even while higher ed has become more and more vital, our wonderful governments have made getting it harder. Today’s students face rising tuition, less scholarship money, and the possibility of emerging from college with a piece of paper, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no certainty of a job.

“There’s no question that for years there has been a systematic disinvestment by government in higher education,” Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon told me last week.

She, like so many of us, came from modest means, and was the first in her family to go to college. Affording school is a lot harder now, and students have far less margin for error.

Getting a four-year-degree at Michigan State, or the University of Michigan, will cost you a little more than $100,000. Yes, that’s terrible. Worse, you can spend that much to get some degrees that will magnificently equip you to be the Costco worker with the most debt in the entire warehouse, which probably isn’t your goal.

There are at least a couple of places, however, that are doing an excellent job and deserve to be better known. 

(I’m leaving aside Wayne State University, where I’m on the faculty, and the University of Michigan, which also pays me. Writing about them would be suspect, a conflict of interest, or both.) 

One of them is Macomb Community College, which really gets its mission in a way that few, if any, community colleges anywhere do.

This is a place where you can go and start taking the college prep classes that will enable you to transition, fairly seamlessly, to a four-year university and perhaps beyond. But you can also come here in fairly desperate straits and get into an eight-week program that will train you how to be a production officer, operating computerized equipment in one of today’s highly automated plants.

You can also enroll in a two-year degree or certificate program that will equip you for a wide variety of jobs, from culinary arts to engineering technology to registered nurse. 

You won’t get rich at most of these, but you’ll make a living, and the placement rate is pretty phenomenal. A lot of this is due to its president, Jim Jacobs, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who has a phenomenal understanding of his county’s economy and needs.

Jacobs has had the top job at Macomb Community College for only six years, but that’s deceptive; though he looks like a man in his mid-50s, he’s been with the college in various roles since 1968.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group for the Center for Automotive Research, says, “Jim Jacobs is not only the best community college president, he is the best in the United States.”

She’s not alone in that belief. Jacobs, by the way, might seem an unlikely choice to be running a largely technical school in the middle of a blue-collar county. Originally from New York, he has a Ph.D. in political economy from Ivy League Princeton University.

But what he gets most of all is that his college has to have a symbiotic relationship with the people it serves — that and the nature of what it’s supposed to do. 

A word of caution: Don’t use the term “vocational education” around him; he hates it. That’s because for too many people, that means something like truck driver school for dumb kids. “What we’re in the business of here is what I call ‘career and technical education,’” he tells me. “We are about giving people skills.” 

Often, those are for a particular job. But more importantly, MCC stresses skills that people can keep using throughout their careers, in an era when the average person will have at least 10 jobs before he’s through. 

“We need people who can adapt, and we try to give them the ability to do that,” wherever they wind up, Jacobs says.

Michigan State University is, at first glance, a very different place — one of the nation’s top institutions, which too often and too unfairly is compared to the University of Michigan.

But, in fact, the two schools are, in a number of ways, very similar. They know who they are, what they’re for, and who they serve. Lou Anna Simon has been president for nine years.

However, like Jim Jacobs, she’s been at her school in various capacities for 40 years — something almost unheard of. 

Michigan established this college before the Civil War for a definite purpose: to seek out new knowledge and find a way of making it practical and relevant for the people of Michigan. 

Originally, that meant “agriculture and applied sciences.” Today it means everything from running hotels to the awesome new federally funded Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, which may revolutionize what we can do with nuclear physics.

Simon, a mathematician herself, likes to say, “If Michigan set out to invent a university today, they would invent us.” Macomb could say the same thing. And those who have jobs, need them, and want to bring more high-paying jobs here ought to study both places.



Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville hasn’t always been a statesman. But unlike some of his colleagues (See Colbeck, Pat), he is capable of rational behavior. For two years, Richardville and his Tea Party-addled colleagues ignored Gov. Rick Snyder’s call to come up with desperately needed money to fix Michigan’s wretched roads.

Finally, after this terrible winter, he seems to have gotten the word from his angry constituents. “I’ve heard the message loud and clear that the roads are messed up,” he admits.

Richardville says his voters are telling him “just fix the damn roads,” something that will take, at a minimum, more than a billion bucks a year. For the last few insane years, today’s legislative Republicans have viewed raising taxes, even for something as necessary as road repair, sort of like Jane Austen would’ve regarded screaming “motherfucker” in church.

But to his credit, Richardville found the guts to introduce a bill to sharply raise gas taxes to generate much of the needed money. His bill isn’t perfect. We also need to raise registration fees on those giant trucks pounding our roads into gravel.

But Richardville’s approach makes a lot of sense. The price of gas fluctuates so much that boosting taxes by a quarter a gallon will be barely noticeable. And there is a rough justice in requiring people who drive more miles to pay more taxes.

In any event, we need to hold our noses, pay whatever it takes, and just fix the roads, damn it, starting now. mt