Lou Glazer said a common refrain he hears from employers, parents and politicians is high school graduates would make higher wages by pursuing two-year degrees or occupational certificates instead of a traditional four-year education.
But Glazer, president of nonprofit think tank Michigan Future Inc., points to a study released last month that shows four-year institutions across the nation are helping propel students into upward mobility more than their two-year and for-profit counterparts.
The study, called The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty, used tax filings and financial aid statements of millions of post-college students to create college-by-college and university-by-university report cards on income mobility and median wage rankings.
The aspect of the study Glazer primarily focused on, using a searchable database created by The New York Times, was the median wage at age 34 of those who attended either a two-year or four-year college in the region.
“If you look at the facts, no matter what the framing or the story is, students who attend four-year universities are earning a lot more at 34 than those who go to two-year colleges or for-profit colleges or universities. That will be surprising to most people,” Glazer said.
In West Michigan, the median wage at 34 for those who attended Kalamazoo College beats that of all other higher education institutions in the region at $53,700.
This compares to the four-year schools with the top median wages at age 34 statewide — Kettering University in Flint at $85,400, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at $68,700 and Michigan Technological University at $65,900.
The four-year West Michigan university with the lowest median wage at age 34 was nonprofit school Davenport University at $23,400.
Among two-year colleges in West Michigan, the highest median wage at 34 goes to students who attended Grand Rapids Community College at $30,700, and the lowest wage in the same category is earned by students who attended Montcalm Community College at $20,600.
Glazer’s colleague at Michigan Future, Patrick Cooney, college success manager, wrote a blog post Feb. 7 exploring the other piece of Chetty’s study: income mobility.
Put simply: Do many students born at the bottom quintile of the wage scale (household income of $25,000 or less) reach the top two quintiles of the wage scale ($35,200 or above and $55,800 or above) by attending college?
Cooney’s conclusion? It’s complicated.
Using Chetty’s data, New York Times research analyst David Leonhardt made a chart of the colleges across the country that do the best job of helping students into upward mobility, and schools such as New Jersey Institute of Technology and Cal State made the top 10.
But the challenge with creating a chart for Michigan schools using Leonhardt’s metrics, Cooney said, is that he only counted schools that have an enrollment of more than 10 percent in the bottom quintile, aka “low-income” students. And very few higher education institutions in Michigan match that percentage of low-income enrollment.
“Only three four-year colleges in Michigan drew more than 10 percent of their students from the bottom income quintile: Wayne State University, University of Detroit Mercy and Olivet College,” Cooney said.
So, Cooney examined the data for Michigan schools with less stringent requirements, crafting “a chart that shows the percentage of bottom quintile students that end up in the top 40 percent of earners by their early 30s for colleges in Michigan.”
Out of the top 20 Michigan four-year colleges on the ranking, the list shows five West Michigan schools where bottom quintile students move up to the top two quintiles in significant percentages: Western Michigan University (56 percent), Kalamazoo College (54.84 percent), Grand Valley State University (50.13 percent), Calvin College (49.84 percent) and Ferris State University (46.04 percent).
Because the percentages of bottom quintile enrollment at those universities ranged from 9.15 percent down to 2.69 percent per school, the total number of students in West Michigan who moved from low-income to top-tier income via four-year college education was only 213 students.
“For low-income kids, the (universities do) a substantial job, statistically speaking, in closing the second-generation income gap,” Glazer said. “The problem is that hardly any low-income kids go to Michigan universities.”
He said the reasons for this are complex and include factors such as college affordability, college readiness among low-income high school graduates and the perception that college is out of reach.
“Likely all of those (lower-income) kids would be Pell-eligible, and their percentage of financial aid eligibility would be higher,” he said. “But there’s this gap where kids don’t apply who could get in, but they don’t think they could get in.”
Glazer said beside low-income access to four-year colleges, one of the things the region needs to work on is income outcomes for community and for-profit colleges.
“Fewer of (those) kids are earning what we would consider good-paying jobs.
“If you look at the national data, they indicate for-profit colleges are the ones with the worst results.”
Glazer said Michigan Future Inc. is focused on educating the state about the path to economic prosperity, and this report will serve as one more tool in the toolbox.
“We’re trying to provide people data on who ends up in the middle class and the characteristics of households making decent earnings,” he said. “We’ve been telling people the substantial majority of those with higher household income are those with four-year degrees.
“It turns out a degree from a Michigan four-year college or university is a path to high-paying work.”
Life at 34
Here is the median wage data at age 34 for all West Michigan colleges and universities:
Public four-year universities
Western Michigan University: $45,000
Ferris State University: $42,400
Grand Valley State University: $41,300
Private nonprofit four-year colleges
Kalamazoo College: $53,700
Hope College: $46,800
Calvin College: $45,900
Aquinas College: $39,300
Cornerstone University: $29,400
Kuyper College: Not included in the study
Grace Bible College: Not included in the study
Private nonprofit four-year/two-year college
Davenport University: $23,400
Grand Rapids Community College: $30,700
Muskegon Community College: $29,100
Kalamazoo Valley Community College: $29,000
Montcalm Community College: $20,600
Source: Michigan Future Inc. using Stanford University and New York Times research.