Commentary: What lies ahead for Flint’s colleges? — Centennials, conflict, change, and challenges

By Paul Rozycki

The University of Michigan-Flint has a new chancellor; Mott Community College’s president is applying for a position in Kentucky; Kettering University has a new vice president, is looking to a “transformational decade”; and, since 2005, the Flint Community Schools have had eight superintendents and are facing dramatically declining enrollment while dealing with empty and crumbling school buildings.

It may be time for Flint’s educational institutions to hit the books (or the laptops). With all the recent changes and threats,  it may be time to cram for a pop quiz or — hopefully not —  a final exam.

The University of Michigan-Flint                                                    

In recent months, as reported by East Village Magazine, the University of Michigan-Flint has been dealing with the conflict over a potential transition from a liberal arts university to one oriented to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and career preparation. Chancellor Debashish Dutta left for a new position at the University of Illinois, and a new leader, Donna Fry, a faculty member and Dean of the College of Health Sciences, has taken the helm as the transition is on a temporary hold. After nearly a decade of decline, enrollment is showing some growth this semester but many of the conflicts and concerns still remain.

Mott Community College

As Mott Community College celebrates its centennial this year, the 100 year anniversary has come with new challenges as well. Mott’s first woman and first African-American president, Dr. Beverly Walker-Griffea announced that she is a finalist for the presidency of the Kentucky Community and Technical College. If she is chosen she will be leaving and beginning her new position in January of 2024. After nearly a decade as Mott’s president, she led the college to adopt a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in many of the college’s programs. That hasn’t happened without friction from some college employees and a newly elected and often divided Board of Trustees. College enrollment is up after the pandemic but clearly there are challenges and changes that Mott will be facing as it begins its second century.

Kettering University

Kettering University celebrated its 100th year in 2019 and its president, Robert McMahan, called for “A Transformational Decade” after the pandemic, the changes with General Motors, and the water crisis in Flint. Kettering has made major investments and commitments to the neighborhood around the Flint campus, boosted its financial fundraising, and reorganized its academic degrees and departments. Kettering’s new Learning Commons was built with the aim of revitalizing cooperative learning and creativity.

Flint Community Schools

Beyond the changes facing higher education in Genesee County, the Flint Community Schools have been dealing with a dramatic decline in enrollments, empty buildings, and continuing conflicts in the Flint Board of Education, as has been well documented in Harold Ford’s reporting for East Village Magazine. Ironically, the empty and crumbling Flint Central High School building, once the premier high school in the city, is also a century old this year — it was the initial home to Flint Junior College, now Mott Community College. Over two-thirds of the students in Flint attend schools other than Flint Community Schools. A recent U.S. News and World Report survey ranked the top 50 high schools in Michigan. None of them were in Genesee County. Of the top 100 high schools in the nation only three were from Michigan.

Statewide challenges

Beyond the local centennials and challenges, higher education in Michigan in general is also facing a daunting future. Though enrollments are up a bit this semester, in recent years nearly every college in Michigan, except for the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Michigan Tech in the U.P, has seen a decline in student numbers.

45,000 fewer students

Some of those losses have been dramatic. Central Michigan University saw a 48 percent decline in student numbers since 2002 and closed four of its dorms as a result. Eastern Michigan University sold the building that once housed its business college and gave its dorms to a private developer in exchange for new buildings. Other campuses can tell similar stories. The cause is both a decline in the number of students graduating from high school in the state and fewer of those students choosing to go to college. By one estimate, there are 45,000 fewer students attending college in Michigan than 10 years ago. Many predict that trend will continue for at least another decade, and that most Michigan colleges and universities will need to make difficult decisions about staffing and tuition if the declines continue.

A national issue

The challenges to colleges and universities isn’t just an issue in Flint and in Michigan. It’s a national issue as well. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, education writer Paul Tough discussed the declining interest in college education nationwide. He attributes it to the rising cost of college for most students and the fear that a college education may not “pay off.” at least for those who begin but fail to earn a degree. For some who complete technical or scientific degrees the evidence shows there is a clear financial advantage, even with the college debt. But for many other degrees the financial advantage is less certain, and some who pursue a trade outside of college may do as well financially over a lifetime. The dramatic increase in college costs and college debt is due to many factors; the decline in state support for colleges and universities is a major one. By the end of last year, student debt totaled more than $1.7 trillion, and the average student debt was over $30,000 at graduation.

According to Tough, this has led to a decline in the number of undergraduates, from about 18 million a decade ago to about 15.5 million today. This may be a result of both the higher cost of a college education today as well as the changing demographics of our population. But like so many things today, there is also a political element. In the age of Trump more than a few see college as place for the “liberal elite” and choose to avoid it for political reasons. A recent Gallup survey showed that only 36 percent of Americans are confident in higher education, down 20 points from 2015. While most other industrialized nations are seeing an increase in college graduates, the United States is seeing its graduates shrink as the need increases.

The next 100 years

Colleges, universities and all educational institutions have faced challenges and changes over the last century. They will need to do the same for the next 100 years. Flint’s colleges and universities have responded and led during all the changes we’ve seen here in Michigan. The path may not be easy or painless, but they need to be a positive force for the future as well.

EVM Political Commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at 

Author: Tom Travis

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