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The Chronicle of Higher Education
September 3, 2013
Detroit, Bankrupt, Looks to Colleges as Partners in Recovery
By Don Troop
A red beam of light hits the wall of an engineering auditorium at
Wayne State University. Standing some 30 feet away, Dan Kinkead
holds a laser pointer.
"If I move my hand 1/100th of an inch," he tells a group of
economic-development professionals in the university's Detroit
Revitalization Fellows Program, "the beam will play out three feet
across that wall."
The dancing spot of light represents Detroit circa 2043, and Mr.
Kinkead, executive director of the urban-planning program Detroit
Future City, wiggles the laser to illustrate how even the smallest
action is amplified when projected across time.
"This is a galvanizing moment for action," he says.
Colleges, businesses, and charitable foundations across Michigan
are heeding that directive, working in ways large and small, together
and independently, to pull Detroit from a downward economic
spiral that began even before the city hit its population zenith of
1.85 million in 1950 (it's now just 700,000). Central to their efforts
is education, both to fill the demand for entrepreneurs, smallbusiness
owners, and skilled workers and to make sense of a
situation that saw Detroit proper go from manufacturing preeminence
to postindustrial meltdown.
The city's estimated $18-billion bankruptcy filing in July turned all
eyes toward Detroit, but James Jacobs, president of Macomb
Community College and an expert in work-force development, insists that the ripples of red ink will extend well beyond the
borders of the city. With 48,000 students on four campuses in
Macomb County, 30 miles north of Detroit, Mr. Jacobs says plenty
of city pensioners pay property taxes that support his college.
"I'm viewing this potential tidal wave coming toward me, and I'm
wondering, How far up the hill am I?" Mr. Jacobs says.
Any solution for Detroit, he says, must involve training people to
work high-skill jobs in the entire metropolitan area—and it must be
accomplished in an era of shrinking state and local resources. On
the positive side, he says, the region still has a robust and viable
While low-skill manufacturing jobs have diminished, "Detroit can
continue to maintain itself as the administrative and technical hub
of this worldwide industry," Mr. Jacobs says. Colleges like his, he
argues, should strive to train workers for areas where Detroit
continues to be a leader, such as navigation systems, new ways of
parking, lighter vehicles, and green technologies.
Macomb and four other local community colleges may soon be
getting an influx of Detroit students. A new program called the
Detroit Scholarship Fund promises tuition-free enrollment for
associate degrees or technical certificates to students who
graduated from any city high school in 2013. They must have
attended the school for at least two years and completed the Free
Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, by June 30.
The program resulted from a pledge that Governor Rick Snyder, a
Republican, made in 2011. It is supported by donations from
foundations and business and is administered by the Detroit
Regional Chamber. About $1-million has been budgeted for the
Because the program is in its inaugural year and community college
enrollment is a notoriously soft commitment, the number
of participants won't be known until the end of September, says Greg Handel, the chamber's senior director of work-force
"For decades there were great jobs for people who didn't have a lot
of formal education," Mr. Handel says. "Those jobs are obviously
gone, and it's kind of a slow transition to a culture and a regional
educational infrastructure that really understands and acts on the
notion that all kids need to have some kind of postsecondary
education in order to succeed."
The scholarship effort got significant grass-roots support from a
Fafsa-completion campaign led by six Local College Access
Networks, or LCANs, along with teams of leaders from Detroit
schools, higher education, business, government, and nonprofit
groups, who strive to ensure that Detroit high-school students are
prepared for college. Working with other city organizations, the
LCANs got 73 percent of the members of Detroit high-schools'
classes of 2013 to fill out the Fafsa, up from about 50 percent a year
"We all just collectively worked our tails off," says Brandy Johnson,
executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, an
umbrella group for the LCANs. It is pursuing a goal set by the
Lumina Foundation to increase postsecondary educational
attainment in the United States to 60 percent by 2025.
If current trends continue, a Lumina study found, only 43 percent
of Michigan adults age 25 to 64 will have degrees by the target year.
In Detroit just 26 percent of adults have postsecondary degrees.
Companies want to invest where there is an educated work force,
Ms. Johnson says. "Right now Detroit is both not producing that
work force, nor is it attractive enough yet to import that kind of
The city's educational challenges notwithstanding, brain drain
from Michigan seems to be easing. A survey this year by the
University of Michigan at Dearborn's Center for Innovation
Research found that 63 percent of public-university graduates
chose to remain in the state, a 12-point increase from a comparable
survey in 2007.
Unlike the rest of the city, Detroit's downtown and Midtown are
enjoying a renaissance. Condo, loft, and apartment housing in
those two areas are essentially sold out, and companies including
Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield have added nearly
12,000 jobs downtown over the past few years. Quicken's founder,
Dan Gilbert, has bought up more than 7.5 million square feet of
downtown real estate, and this summer the company hired more
than 1,000 college students as interns in an effort to spread the
word about Detroit's comeback. Mr. Gilbert has also used a
portion of his $3.5-billion fortune to launch a number of tech startups
But Detroit is a vast city with highly visible problems, and local
colleges are working to do their part.
Marygrove College, a Roman Catholic liberal-arts institution that
serves largely first-generation and Pell Grant-eligible students, is
midway through a three-year initiative to develop urban leaders.
The program, backed by a $1.5-million grant from the Kellogg
Foundation, infuses Marygrove's curriculum, says President David
"There is a need for enhancing the capacity for people to tell their
stories in ways that don't become compartmentalized and
stereotyped around race," he says. "Authentic, real conversations.
That's something that we believe strongly that urban leaders in
Detroit can influence."
Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, and the
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor all own or lease space in
Detroit, where they engage with the city in myriad ways.
Semester in Detroit is a University of Michigan program that brings
students to live at Wayne State University and intern in the city with
nonprofit community groups, business start-ups, museums, or
political officials. The students also take a core course in Detroit
history and an elective course such as urban planning in the
context of postwar Detroit.
Craig Regester, the program's associate director, says it gives
students a "multidimensional, nuanced view of what it means to be
part of a community and part of a city." Of the 104 students who
completed the program from 2009 to 2012, 24 went on to live or
work in Detroit after graduation, he says.
One such alumnus is Rashard Haynesworth, a Detroit native and
first-generation college student who interned with Racquet Up
Detroit, an after-school program that combines the sport of squash
with academic tutoring and mentoring for local youths. Mr.
Haynesworth recently took a full-time job with Racquet Up, which
runs its program in a recreation center not far from where he grew
up. "I want to be the guy who kids look at and say, 'If he did it, so
Similarly, Michigan's Community-Based Research Program placed
students with 20 local organizations in Detroit for the summer, and
Michigan's School of Education has a partnership with the Detroit
School of Arts, a high school in Midtown. Students in Michigan's
master's-level capstone course in urban and regional planning
apply their newly acquired expertise to real-world problems in
Detroit and the surrounding area. One student project, which
sought to reform the tax-foreclosure-auction system in Wayne
County to ensure that foreclosed properties were reused rather
than abandoned, won a national award from the American Planning
Angela D. Dillard, director of the University of Michigan's
Residential College, has been working in several ways to bring her
institution's resources and scholarly heft to bear on the problems
facing Detroit. One such effort is a "Michigan Meeting," which will
bring scholars from a range of disciplines to Detroit next May to
grapple with "the global problem of urban decline by focusing on
the paradigmatic example of Detroit."
She urges those studying the city to proceed with caution. "Race is
a land mine for anyone who wants to work in Detroit," says Ms.
Dillard, and that includes African-American scholars such as
She recalls running into problems while pursuing a communitybased
history project with a black church. "The whole thing fell
apart. I think it had everything to do with race and place, class, and
Even though she had grown up in northwest Detroit, her own
"racial belonging" came into question. "When you have that big 'M'
traveling with you," she says, "I think the vision of the University of
Michigan is that it's a white, arrogant institution and really ought
not to be mucking around in the city anyway."
It was a sobering lesson, and one she says she retells often.
"So some white kid from the suburbs—how do we really prepare
students to live in the city, to learn in the city, to partner with
people in the city, and to learn from them?" she asks.
Ms. Dillard advises scholars and students to be responsible to the
communities they work with because Detroit residents are
accustomed to being exploited by others, even if it's just
researchers seeking data.
"If you keep at Detroiters, you can crack through that," she says.
"It's about building trust. They want to know that you're not there
just exploiting the city one more time."