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Michigan's schools can learn a thing or two from Macomb Community College

When it comes to education, there are two things on which pretty much everyone agrees. We need more of it, and we need to make it more affordable.

But there’s a third thing, too. We need to make it relevant.

Learning for learning’s sake is a good and sacred thing, but today’s generation also needs education that will lead to jobs, in most cases, sooner rather than later.

For years, I’ve been intrigued by a place that seems to have gotten something very right: Macomb Community College.

The school is not a university, nor does it want to become one. But it has built strong partnerships with a number of them, and is a highly complex place where you can get training that will lead to a job – or the education to lead you to a bachelor’s degree and beyond.

That’s not to say it is either a conventional “junior college” or “vocational school,” terms that make its administrators shudder.

"Today's employers need people with skills, but they also need people who can adapt." - Jim Jacobs, president, Macomb Community College

Yesterday I had a fascinating lunch with Macomb’s president, Jim Jacobs, a man as complex as the institution he runs.

Jacobs, who is soft-spoken and deeply intellectual, has a doctorate in political economy from Princeton.

But while he has only been president of Macomb Community College for six years, he’s been affiliated with the school and the county since the late 1960s. There is probably no one who understands the county, the community, and its economy better than he.

When Detroit emptied out, white-collar workers tended to go west, to Oakland County; blue-collar ones east, to Macomb. The county, which now has nearly 900,000 people, has more layers than that. The northern part is quite rural, and there are communities that have considerable wealth.

But street after street in the southern suburbs are lined with machining and tool and die shops, and auto suppliers of every tier. Behind them are small houses filled with people who need jobs.

President Jacobs hates the term “vocational education” in part because historically, it implied “job training for dumb kids.” He prefers “career and technical education.” 

Jacobs told me: “Today’s employers need people with skills, but they also need people who can adapt.”

His college serves more than 20,000 full-time students a year, with a dizzying variety of programs.

Perhaps half his students see Macomb as a starting point to a four-year degree. Another huge cohort wants a two-year training program that will lead to a certificate and an occupation, such as registered nurse or certified nursing assistant.

But there are also thousands who return to school who need a new career, or whose job has disappeared. If you are a middle-aged homemaker whose partner has suddenly vanished, Macomb can train you in six weeks to support yourself as a production assistant.

That’s not Macomb’s central focus, however; it is in economic development and anticipating the county’s future needs. It is no accident that Wayne State is about to open a huge new Advanced Technology Education Center across from Macomb’s south campus.

Macomb Community College has become both the county’s main intellectual center and engine for economic development.

I think there are a lot of lessons here for other counties and schools as well.