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Education is a 21st Century Asset for Michigan Communities

By Colby Spencer

Wayne State University

Wayne State University

Education has become known as the great equalizer in our nation. We consider a “free and appropriate education” for all citizens a right, not a privilege. In a place like Michigan, where hard work is valued above all, education may be the single most important aspect of each person’s future. Hard work will get you far, but hard work and education will get you further. There is a near-universal acceptance that a high school education is a minimum credential for the modern workforce; however, college is increasingly more important for income growth. For these reasons it is the responsibility of each community to foster an environment which values education. Community-education partnerships can encompass elementary all the way through higher education. It is these partnerships that have made a difference all around the country and helped everyday citizens to succeed and add wealth and prosperity to their hometowns.

The ways in which education adds value to each citizen and society are endless. Education provides each person with valuable human capital. “[S]kills, knowledge, abilities, experience, aptitude, and training are human capital that, like physical capital, accrues a stream of future benefits when developed . . . when invested in, [an] education is a form of human capital that affects benefits over a lifetime . . . Education increases the productivity of labor, through technological innovation . . . as an engine of economic growth, education enhances both private and public benefits that are ultimately reflected in measures such as per capita income.” (Review of the Statistical Measurement of Human Capital by Adolf Stroombergen, Dennis Rose, and Ganesh Nana, November 2002). All of this is confirmation that education matters, not only to each individual but to society as a whole.

Education is also a draw for a highly qualified workforce, “high quality labor is attracted to states with superior public schools, and more highly educated individuals are better consumers because of their higher wages.” Michigan’s “Smart Zones” in and near universities are evidence that highly qualified workers gravitate to locales for educational and work opportunities. The number of students entering Michigan’s universities due to family legacy is also a great indicator. But what can be done in public schools? How can smaller communities leverage their community college resources better?

Numerous examples exist for public education-community partnerships. Littleton, New Hampshire, a town of 5,845 residents, has created a downtown river-walk museum in which different grades in the public schools are responsible for various exhibits. They have also created a marketing and workforce collaboration between the high school’s vocational center and a downtown shopping district to assist with and learn about advertising, marketing, internet sales, and rehabilitation of the downtown area. This program is less costly for the district than building an addition to the high school and hiring new teachers for marketing and advertising. This community has been able to revitalize their downtown, focus on economic development, reach state standards for their high school students, and give them an opportunity for on the job training before high school ends. The Littleton, New Hampshire example is just one of many that show how education and community function better as a partnership. The costs are fewer and the benefits are infinite.

Michigan State University

Michigan State University

Another example is Gaylord Community School in Gaylord, Michigan. In the early 1990s, the school board had gone to residents twice to gain support for a new school building, only to be defeated both times. In response, the board initiated an extensive outreach to the community, including senior citizens (who had helped to defeat the two bond referendums). Senior citizens were especially eager to have a performing arts center, something the city lacked. So, school and community leaders began a community planning process that for the first time included senior citizens. The school board adopted the community-school concept and developed a new school proposal that included day care, health care facilities, and a 600-seat performing arts center. The $25 million bond proposal subsequently gained the community's support. The decision by school officials to incorporate a performing arts center into the new school was a key factor in winning the public support to pass the bond the third time it was presented.

Partnerships in public education are essential—higher education is no exception. Community colleges and adult education programs are an enormous contributor to workforce development. Whether they create a pathway to a degree or allow a person to acquire a new skill, their role in a community is invaluable. Every community struggles with a population that has been overlooked by the mainstream education system. High school drop-outs, recent immigrants, formerly incarcerated citizens, and low-wage earners are all perfect candidates to take advantage of community-based education such as noncredit courses, non-degree bridging programs, and workforce development.

Researchers at the American Academy of Political and Social Science have looked specifically at community college based non-degree and noncredit programs that allow otherwise disadvantaged populations to succeed. “Noncredit programs constitute a precollege or bridging mechanism; helping individuals who might not otherwise gain access to community colleges make the transition into mainstream education. These programs are more flexible, less impersonal and bureaucratic than the credit divisions of community colleges, and more likely to be in community-based facilities, closer to where low-income students live.” Programs such as this allow students to connect to their community and acquire valuable skills, especially those who need language training or high school equivalency. These citizens can then find a better job, earn a higher wage, and contribute more to their community.

Michigan made strides in higher education when Governor Granholm launched No Worker Left Behind (NWLB) in August of 2007. The intent of the initiative was for Michigan residents to attend a community college or university tuition-free for two years to upgrade their skills so they can move into good-paying jobs in high-demand fields. As of July 10, 2010, some results of the program were:

  • Enrollment in community colleges has outpaced proprietary school enrollment since May 2009

  • Four-year institution enrollment has nearly tripled since the start of NWLB

  • Job retention training helped 27,191 workers gain new skills they needed to keep jobs otherwise at risk or advance to new ones

Unfortunately, there has been a reduction in federal funding for this program. The state expects to train at least 60,000 workers in the new cycle, about the same as last year (which broke all records).

Investing in education is a must and is the leading factor for prosperity. A community that shows how much it values education will be leaps and bounds ahead of the game. The ability for a community to make economic strides is contingent upon its investment in its citizens, specifically in education. If Michigan is to be competitive in a 21st century economy, education must be a priority for every city, village, and township resident.

Center for 21st Century Communities’ Eight Assets

University of Michigan

University of Michigan

The League identified eight essential assets that make communities vibrant places in the 21st century. Research continues to show that “place-making” matters more than ever, as an increasingly mobile workforce seeks out neighborhoods before finding jobs and opening up businesses. Our purpose is to help local officials identify, develop, and implement strategies that will grow and strengthen Michigan’s communities in the coming decades.

Physical Design & Walkability

Whether your community is big or small, it is important to create a physical fabric that promotes social connections where people can live, work, shop, and play.

Green Initiatives

“Thinking green” is a critical asset of any viable community. It impacts natural resources, quality of life, and the financial bottom line.

Cultural Economic Development (CED)

Arts and culture should be a part of any long-term economic development strategy for sustainability. CED plays a big role in developing and preserving a community’s identity and uniqueness.


In the new economy, we need to focus on growing jobs in our communities by ones and twos for long-term sustainability.


Our global economy is fueled by the talent and ingenuity of people from around the world. Welcoming those from different backgrounds and disciplines can result in a whole new level of innovation.

Messaging & Technology

Technology allows people to connect and collaborate like never before. Communities have a powerful opportunity to connect and engage with their citizenry and beyond.


People are choosing where they want to live, play and work in communities that embrace all modes of transportation—walking, biking, and public transit.

Education (K-16)

Our educational institutions are key to growing a knowledge-based state. Leveraging these institutional resources is critical.

Michigan Town-Gown Legislation Is Supported by Michigan Municipal League

The House New Economy Committee passed HB 6243, a key piece of legislation being advocated by the League as part of our Prosperity Agenda. The bill reflects the education asset of the Prosperity Agenda and the Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) initiative by providing a mechanism to help foster “town-gown” economic development partnerships. Attracting talent and jobs in the new economy is important, and both the statewide council and local town-gown councils in college communities played important roles in the process of getting this legislation passed. 

Specifically, the bill allows for Educational Opportunity Districts to be created in communities that have colleges or universities. These districts are essentially Downtown Development Authorities that have representation from the municipality, the college, and local businesses. 

Discussion in committee centered on the economic development impacts of higher education working with communities. Research continues to show the positive economic relationship that occurs when communities partner with higher education. This includes business opportunities such as incubators, entrepreneurs, retail and other economic development benefits. League Trustee David Lossing (mayor of Linden and legislative director for the University of Michigan, Flint) previously testified on the importance of these partnerships and this legislation.

Amendments were added to the bill in committee that allow private schools to utilize this tool with communities, and that prohibit public dollars from being spent on college/university buildings. The League supported these amendments. The bill passed in the House and is now on the Senate floor for consideration. The League thanks Chair Ed Clemente (D-Lincoln Park) for his tireless work on this bill. The League bestowed its Legislator of the Year award to Rep. Clemente for his work on behalf of issues that are vital to Michigan’s municipalities. Also to be commended is Rep. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) for his hard work and interest in this legislation.

Schools are Central to Every Community

Schools are both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone—all day, every day, evenings and weekends.

“Today’s educational facilities should be designed to sustain the integral relationship between a school and its community. They should be places where creative configurations of space expand their use to encompass early learning and adult education, where learning occurs ‘after hours,’ late at night, on weekends, where school-to-school partnerships, links with business and collaboration with higher education are encouraged and supported. They should enable learners of all ages and serve as centers for lifelong learning.”
—U.S. Department of Education, (Source:


Colby Spencer is a graduate student at Columbia University and an intern at the Michigan Municipal League. You may reach her at



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