Column: Michigan’s private colleges matter

Jeff Abernathy

While Michigan’s public universities are typically in the forefront of the public’s eye, the state’s private institutions play an equally vital role in making our state a better place to live and work.

A recent report by Michigan Independent Colleges & Universities (MICU) examines the economic footprint of the state’s 25 not-for-profit schools. The data makes a strong case for private higher education as a valuable alternative to the state’s public schools. The privates contribute significantly to creating a highly educated workforce, and they strongly impact the communities they serve.

Here’s what the numbers show: Twenty-five percent of higher education degrees in Michigan are awarded by MICU institutions, with more than 125,000 students enrolled at our schools. Our students come from all economic and demographic backgrounds, with 53 percent of enrolled MICU students qualifying for Pell grants based on financial need. Michigan’s private institutions provide $416 million in financial aid assistance to their students each year.

In addition, Michigan’s independent schools employ more than 26,000 faculty and staff resulting in $1.4 billion in earnings for Michigan families. Those families purchase homes, goods and services in their communities, contributing an estimated $2 billion in direct spending each year. MICU schools also provide interns and volunteers for local nonprofits and a ready supply of current students and recent graduates to fill vacancies at local businesses.

Michigan’s private colleges are the cultural centers for the communities they serve, providing venues for the performing arts, athletics and local celebrations. In many communities, faculty and staff serve in key civic leadership roles and support local initiatives. At Alma, our faculty, staff and students were actively involved in the development of a new free clinic in town, and today students in our health science programs volunteer as in-take coordinators at the clinic.

But our mission, of course, is to educate tomorrow’s citizens. The academic programs offered at Michigan’s independent schools are second-to-none in preparing students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities for the global economy. Examples abound. Northwood University offers distinctive academic programs in automotive marketing and management. Madonna University has pioneered programs in hospice education and aging studies. The online learning programs at Siena Heights University are recognized nationally. Lawrence Technological University provides research tools for responding to next-generation manufacturing needs. The mission of many of our schools are to equip students not only for their first career but for their second, fifth or even 10th careers.

Our schools also provide opportunities for student growth and learning in ways that require a personal touch. Small class sizes and student-faculty ratios provide an environment that many students need to get the most out of their college experience.

For example, the Alma College Campbell Scholars program provides increased scholarships for qualified low-income Detroit students. Of the 21 mostly first-generation college students who have enrolled in this program since it was introduced in 2014, 20 have persisted and are on track for graduation.

Michigan’s private colleges matter. Knowledge, stewardship, passion, commitment and leadership grow on our campuses.

Jeff Abernathy is the president of Alma College.