Is College Accessibility Really a Problem?

Both of Michigan's 2010 gubernatorial candidates favor spending more on higher education. Republican Rick Snyder says we need to "reverse recent trends of under-investing in colleges, universities and community colleges," and Democrat Virg Bernero claims, "Access to higher education is a huge concern."

Historical trends and comparisons with other states, however, suggest that Michigan does not have a problem with getting people enrolled in college.

In spite of having the nation's worst state economy over the last decade, 75,648 more students enrolled in this state's degree-granting institutions of higher education in 2007 than in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's a 13 percent increase. In contrast, Michigan's population grew by just 0.3 percent between 2000 and 2009.

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Increased college enrollment is not due to an influx of out-of-state students, either. In 2006, some 87 percent of freshman enrolled in Michigan colleges were residents of this state. Likewise, 87 percent all college freshman who were residents of Michigan in 2006 attended schools in their home state. (The national averages are 73 and 75 percent, respectively.)

Comparisons with other states reflect the same reality. Michigan's population is 26 percent larger than Virginia's, yet 35 percent more college students enrolled here in 2007. The Great Lakes State has just 6 percent more people than North Carolina, but 28 percent more college enrollees. Michigan's population is 14 percent larger than New Jersey's, but 62 percent more students enroll in this state's institutions of higher education.

The increased college enrollment levels here come in spite of the fact that all three of those other states have higher per-capita personal incomes, which also grew faster than Michigan's between 2000 and 2008.

This state gets no benefit from educating the next generation of other states' workers: Without major tax, regulatory and labor law reforms, many of our newly minted degree-holders are forced to move elsewhere because they can't find a job in Michigan. This should be the focus of candidates — not pandering to a politically influential higher education establishment perpetually on the hunt for ever-larger taxpayer subsidies.