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Bridge Michigan
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Opinion | Michigan’s prosperity depends on building great cities and schools

At a recent presentation to the Growing Michigan Together Council, we delivered this message: Either Michigan gets younger and better educated or Michigan will continue to get older and poorer.

Lou Glazer headshot
Lou Glazer is the president of Michigan Future, Inc.

Specifically, we argued that state policymakers have two high-impact policy levers at their disposal to reverse Michigan's decades-long economic-well-being decline. First, Michigan needs to create transit-rich, vibrant central cities that are competitive with America's young talent magnet regions. Second, Michigan needs an education system focused on schooling from birth through college that substantially increases the four-year degree attainment rate. 

If policymakers don’t focus on concentrating college-educated Generation Z here in Michigan — and substantially increase Michigan’s four-year degree attainment rate — we will continue to become poorer compared to the rest of America.

It’s far past time for alarm bells to go off. Michigan’s economic decline and population stagnation has been ongoing for nearly 50 years. 

Did you know that Michigan's congressional delegation peaked in the 1970s at 19 members? Today, Michigan has slipped to just 13 members due to population stagnation. The last time Michigan had 13 members was in the 1920s. 

In 1979, Michigan ranked 13th in per capita income. Today, Michigan is 39th – 13 percent below the national average. Michigan has never been this far behind before. 

This is not a partisan issue — this decline occurred under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The reason for this unprecedented collapse in economic well-being is that Michigan has too many low-wage jobs. While we once attracted people globally for high-wage jobs, Michigan is now a state with median wages nearly 10 percent below the rest of the country. Currently, 6-in-10 Michigan jobs pay less than what’s required for a family of three to be considered middle class.

What our policymakers are doing to increase the economic well-being of Michigan residents hasn’t worked. A small course correction won’t be sufficient — a transformational change in our approach to education and the economy is required if we’re going to achieve an economy that benefits all as it grows.

In today’s economy, talent attracts capital and quality of place attracts talent. The most consistent predictor of a state’s economic success is the share of adults — particularly young adults — with a college degree or more. Where young talent goes, high-growth, high-wage, knowledge-based enterprises follow, expand, and develop. Because talent is the asset that matters most to high-wage employers and is in the shortest supply, the new path to prosperity is concentrated talent.

If we are to become a high-prosperity state once again, Michigan needs great cities and great schools.

Michigan’s current economic development playbook is focused largely on business attraction. This is endangering the long-term health of our economy and the economic well-being of households because it doesn’t incorporate the value of place. 

To create a Michigan with lots of good-paying career opportunities, we need to strengthen and create more vibrant neighborhoods in our cities that attract and retain young talent. These neighborhoods all share common characteristics: they are dense, walkable, high-amenity neighborhoods, with parks, outdoor recreation, retail and public arts woven into residents’ daily lives. 

And they offer plentiful alternatives to driving, particularly rail transit – the 21st Century infrastructure that matters most to concentrating young talent.

Even more, we must increase the share of young Michiganders who pursue and complete a four-year degree. Since most young adults who live in Michigan were raised here, they will largely determine Michigan's talent concentrations. The more Michigan students who have a B.A. or more, the better able the state will be to develop high-wage jobs. 

Perhaps more importantly, increasing the share of young non-affluent Michiganders who pursue and complete a four-year degree is the most powerful lever for improving both racial equity and economic mobility.

Increasing four-year degree completion rates for non-affluent students is now an economic imperative. This requires a radical redesign in what we teach and how we teach, particularly for non-affluent students.

In short, if Michigan is going to get younger and better educated, we must make bold public investments in place and education — the drivers of today’s economy. If we don’t quickly change our approach, the alternative is clear: Michigan will continue to get older and poorer.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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