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In Michigan, All Hands on Deck

February 5, 2010

Like many a state education official, Michael P. Flanagan, Michigan's superintendent of public instruction, wants to make it as smooth (and as affordable) as possible for the state's secondary students -- whatever they study in high school -- to continue on to higher education.

So when officials at Davenport University, an independent four-year college with several campuses in the state, proposed a statewide agreement in which it would accept up to 24 academic credits earned by students while in career-technical high schools and centers, Flanagan leaped at the chance to create more paths for Michigan's young people to get a four-year degree.

Flanagan also had an ulterior motive that fed his enthusiasm for the idea, he admits. The state has worked hard to upgrade the content and rigor of its career/technical curriculum in recent years, but for many people, the "mythology persists that technical education is still wood shop, that students go into it to avoid taking some of the more rigorous academic courses, and that there's no way that applied physics [taught in a career-technical program] can be as good as regular physics [taught at a traditional high school]," Flanagan says.

"But this idea that you can't learn physics is busted when a university is ready to give credit for it," he says. "This changes the game, and from my point of view, it's the reason we jumped at this."

The agreement between Davenport and Michigan's Office of Career and Technical Education, which the two parties announced Thursday, is the first statewide agreement under which a Michigan college or university will accept credits in certain approved courses taken by students at any of the state's technical high schools or career-technical centers. Many of Michigan's community colleges and public four-year colleges have local or regional agreements to accept such credits, and the state "would do this in a second with community colleges" if the state's two-year institutions, as a group, proposed such an arrangement, Flanagan says.

But while two-year and other public colleges might be likelier than independent institutions like Davenport to find a place for students from technical high schools, officials at the Michigan institution say they undertook the yearlong effort -- which involved gauging which courses (and educational outcomes) in the state's technical high school curriculum closely aligned with their own -- because enrolling such students is consistent with the mission of an institution that calls itself "your career university."

"The state is falling behind in the number of baccalaureate holders, and by letting them earn 24 articulated credits, this provides access and incentives for people to go on to pursue a degree, and maybe a higher degree than they would have," says Richard Pappas, Davenport's president, who points out that the credits will be awarded only to students who enter the university's bachelor's degree programs, not its two-year programs. "We really believe in this access, and really think that the quality in the career and technical programs is there."

The career-technical centers whose academic credits Davenport has agreed to accept enroll about 200,000 students a year. In the past, many students who chose such a track may have been looking to avoid some of the tougher academic courses in traditional high schools, while others were looking to fast-track a path into the workforce. Today, Flanagan says, some students still choose it for those reasons, but the centers are getting more of the "traditional academic kid who goes this route because the brand of education is so hands-on."

Most students in such programs are still heavily focused on getting into the work force, but in a state like Michigan where the unemployment rate is soaring, "college is now more of an alternative for them," says David Fleming, provost and executive vice president for academics at Davenport.

And more of them are likely to be prepared for college level work, he said. As the university's officials dug into the course work in the career-technical centers and high schools, Fleming said, they were impressed by the rigor of many of the classes, some of which "equated to 200- or 300-level courses at the college level." Their analysis concluded that the typical graduate of those programs had completed six to eight courses "that are so close in terms of outcomes that we're willing to give you our credits for them." For a typical student, that could equate to close to a year's worth of a Davenport education.

While the arrangement between Davenport and the State of Michigan is unusual, as officials at several national groups confirmed, it is not unique. Pennsylvania's Bureau of Career and Technical Education has developed a statewide articulation process in which all colleges must participate if they receive money through the state from the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Program. Several private two-year institutions and at least two independent four-year colleges -- Mt. Aloysius College and Mercyhurst College -- have joined in the effort, agreeing to accept academic credits from "specific secondary programs that would align with postsecondary career-technical education programs they offer," said David Garnes, a career and technical education adviser in the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Office of Elementary/Secondary Education.

Lee Burket, who directs the state's Bureau of Career and Technical Education, says that she spoke to students at five of the career-technical centers that are most engaged in the state's reform efforts to gauge the students' plans. "Almost unanimously, they would never have considered going on to college" if the new curriculum at the CTE centers -- and the eased path created by the articulation agreements -- hadn't pointed them in that direction.

The time has largely passed when a technical high school education was enough for most young people in Rust Belt states -- a fact even truer in a state like Michigan, says Flanagan, the state superintendent. "The old auto jobs are gone, and the new ones require at least a community college degree," he says, "and probably more than that."

Davenport, Flanagan says, is giving them a head start down that path.

 

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