Michigan can improve college graduation rates by supporting young students, panelist says

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Preparing K-12 students for higher education is critical for Michigan's future but the state won't be successful without considering what's happening in students' homes, according to Detroit's top workforce development official.

Nicole Sherard-Freeman, group executive of Jobs, Economy and Detroit At Work for the city, said research shows the difference between students who are successful and those who are not hinge on young people's social networks, the adults in their lives and skills learned at home. Policymakers need to attend to children's parents, guardians, grandparents, neighbors and the faith-based community, she said.

"If we don't attend to the adults, we don't have a hope," said Sherard-Freeman, who was a panelist Wednesday in a session about preparing K-12 students for success in college at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Nicole Sherard Freeman, group executive of Jobs, Economy and Detroit At Work for the city of Detroit, said at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 that preparing K-12 students for higher education is critical for Michigan's future but the state won't be successful without considering what's happening in students' homes.

Panelists discussed how to reach Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's goal of getting 60% of the state's population a credential or degree by 2030 in a panel moderated by The Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley. Currently, 45% of Michigan residents have a post-secondary degree.

"Hitting that 60% rate is going to mean almost every child is going to not only get a high school degree but then get some sort of post-high school training," said Finley. 

Creating a college-going culture in the state's K-12 schools, supporting students once they are in higher education and involving the business community were discussed as potential solutions.

Henry Ford College President Russell Kavalhuna said the Detroit regional higher education system has big leaks. Of those who got into college in the six-county Detroit region, 46% didn't earn a credential. Statistics are even more dire for Detroit students, he added, with 76% of those who start college leaving without a degree.

"That kind of leakage needs to be repaired," said Kavalhuna. "In order to repair that, we are going to change the way we do higher education. We have to do more to support students getting from the beginning of the pipeline to the end." 

Getting students ready for college includes implementing a college-going culture in K-12 schools that expects college at an early age, Kavalhuna said. High schools also need to be engaged with early college or dual enrollment programs, when students take courses at community colleges before high school graduation.

"It's going to take a restructure of our education system," said Kavalhuna. 

He pointed to the Detroit Promise Path, a scholarship for Detroit high school graduates that also provides a coach and a small stipend for students. But he said that students need to be shown they can have a meaningful career.

"We are going to have to help students see their path through," he said.

The Detroit Promise Path hasn't had a significant impact on graduation rates. A  report on the pilot project that is now part of the Detroit Promise program showed that nearly 11% had obtained a credential during a three-year period, though 36.3% were still enrolled in community college after six semesters.

Richard Pappas, president of Davenport University, said Davenport mandates study tables and also makes sure students have the same adviser all the way through their college career.

"They have the ability, but they have a lot of questions and they drop out early if they are not paid attention to," Pappas said of students. "It is our responsibility to bring them through, not only to graduate them. That is a misnomer, to only graduate. They have to have a good job, and a good career. They have to have a place to go."

Angelique Power, the new CEO of The Skillman Foundation, said the systems that are in place have never been designed for African American and Latino students. A focus needs to be placed on systems to ensure all students make it through college, she said.

"This is a moment where we realize the exquisite design of racism is everywhere," said Power. "We have to look with a laser focus on all of these systems right now ...the systems are there to serve Black and brown children, especially in the city of Detroit."

Power spoke of pilot research surveying Detroit youth that showed a "tremendous sense of optimism" regarding the future.

"We don't have to empower young Black and brown people," said Power. "They are powerful people. They are not necessarily being set up for success ... It's on us to tap into this existing power and channel it for our collective benefit."