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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Macomb Community College Breaks Through!

May 23, 2014

DETROIT – Michigan’s sprawling suburban Macomb County has long been both an anomaly and a herald of the future. Back in the 1950s when Detroit started emptying into the northern suburbs, white collar workers tended to migrate west, to Oakland County; blue-collar ones east, to Macomb.

Macomb’s working-class voters won national attention when they became “Reagan Democrats” in 1980. (These days—like the nation—they’ve twice voted for President Obama.) Even as Michigan’s population began slipping, Macomb—which now has about 850,000 people—has continued to grow. But, the county that became a famous blue-collar suburban symbol may be leading the state in a most unlikely area: Education.

With the collapse of the state’s old muscle-based, full-employment economy, pretty much everyone seems to agree on three things:

  1. Michigan needs more higher education
  2. That education needs to be affordable
  3. It needs to lead to jobs

Macomb Community College (MCC) seems to have created a model that works to deliver all three at a wide range of levels. Students of limited means can and do enter here, take basic courses for less than half the tuition they’d pay at a four-year school and then transition into one, often taking university courses on MCC’s campus.

The school also hosts stunning, three-month long lecture series on major topics every year such as, “the Roaring Twenties” and, “the Great Depression” and pays to bring in world-class scholars and former top government officials to take part. But, the college also is a place that provides fast job training to people who really need it.

Imagine a 45-year-old housewife who has few job skills, little money and has lost her spouse. MCC has an eight-week, Production Officer Certificate Program which trains people to run the fairly complex machinery used in today’s assembly plants and other manufacturing operations. The college says the program has an 85 percent placement rate. Johnny Jackson, who was living in a homeless shelter when he started, is now fully employed and working on a bachelor’s degree. “This job is what is allowing me to continue with these plans,” said Jackson, who can’t say enough good about the program.

The architect of much of the college’s success is MCC’s current president, Jim Jacobs, a soft-spoken, deeply thoughtful man who at first glance would seem an unlikely choice to run a sprawling, largely technical school in the industrial Midwest. Jacobs, who is from upstate New York, has a doctorate in political economy from Princeton University. But, he has been with Macomb as an instructor and administrator for more than 40 years. Possibly no one in Macomb understands the county, its economics and the political and cultural communities as well as Jacobs.

Community colleges, he said, have to have a symbiotic relationship with those they serve: “What we are in the business of here, is what I call ‘career and technical education,’” he said during an interview last week. He detests, by the way, the term “vocational education,” which, for many, implies inferior education for dumb kids. “We are about giving people skills—sometimes for a specific job—but, more importantly, skills they can keep using. We need people who can adapt, and we try to give them the ability to do that,” he said.

Part of the reason for the college’s success, he said, is knowing who it serves. Macomb County is one of the largest counties in the nation without a four-year university. MCC, which has more than 20,000 full-time students, may be one of the few large and successful community colleges that have no desire to become a university. Instead, their model is to partner with other universities. Their central campus has a gleaming University Center where students can take higher education classes. Detroit’s Wayne State University is building a major new Advanced Technology Center across from Macomb’s large and bustling south campus, in Warren.

Macomb, in return, is remodeling an entrance to take best advantage of it. Ten years ago, Michigan created a commission chaired by then-Lieutenant Governor John Cherry, which produced a major report on “higher education and economic growth.” The report called for a doubling of the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by the state over the next decade, something that Michigan didn’t even come close to achieving. But the commission gave short shrift to any form of higher education other than a conventional four-year degree.

MCC has been busy creating a model that may be much more suited for a diverse industrial society. “We have basically three types of students here,” Jacobs said. “Those who see this as a starting point to a conventional four year degree. Then, there are those who want a two year degree and certification for a specific occupation, of which nursing is perhaps the classic model.” The college also offers an array of career preparation programs, including information technology, various forms of engineering technology and the culinary arts.

Former Michigan State University President M. Peter McPherson once told me he had decided the key to success in higher education is, “knowing who you serve, and then positioning yourself to serve your clients as best as you possibly can.”

Macomb Community College appears to have done that, and to have created a model other schools might do well to study.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

May 22, 2014 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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