Detroit is Michigan’s largest city, and East Lansing is home to its largest university.
It makes sense, then, these two bigwigs of the Great Lakes State share a history that “goes back a long way,” according to John Ambrose, senior associate director of MSU Admissions.
Ambrose said the metro Detroit “tri-county area” — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — is an important area for his department to target. He said the university makes an effort to provide crucial services, like financial aid and application help, to city residents.
“The vast majority of the concentrated population for the state of Michigan is in this tri-county area,” Ambrose said. “The university and the city of Detroit have been connected. ... Whether it’s government, or civic, or social justice or other kinds of things education-wise, Michigan State University has been involved.”
The connection between Detroit and MSU goes both ways; while Detroit students provide MSU with a solid recruitment base, the university also plays an active role in the city’s development as it recovers from a historic decline. An important part of the university’s effort to help Detroit rebuild focuses on students and education.
MSU's Detroit Center is the hub of the university's outreach to the city. Programs from a community music school to an arm of MSU's outreach department are housed within the building on Woodward Avenue, providing educational opportunities to prospective students. Ambrose said from time to time, he even works from a satellite admissions office within the Center.
Jena Baker-Calloway, director of the Detroit Center, said she hasn’t heard any student explicitly credit the center for bringing them to MSU. However, she said its presence in the city not only impacts prospective Spartans, but brings Detroit students bound for all colleges into contact with the research and knowledge found at MSU.
“The benefits are innumerable,” Baker-Calloway said. “We’re not just talking about future Spartans, we’re talking about linking the expertise that the university brings to bear in a variety of different areas.”
Baker-Calloway said in order to influence young Detroiters to become interested in attending college, there is a need for outreach programs that not only give information, but build relationships. She said she believes the Detroit Center is an example of such a program.
“It does aid in terms of having an accessible place to go, as they can have a face-to-face interaction with someone, an actual person, as opposed to doing an online inquiry or making a phone call,” Baker-Calloway said. “It’s a little bit more personal, and I think people appreciate the fact that the center is here.”
The College Ambition Program, or CAP, a federally-funded research study being implemented at 11 high schools in Detroit and Lansing, holds this idea of personal interaction at its core. Since its creation in 2011, CAP has provided under-served students with mentoring, college essay assistance and college visits in an attempt to boost enrollment among the cities’ low-income and minority children.
In November, the university rewarded CAP's success by allocating the program a $1.3 million, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation. In addition to funding the existing initiatives, the grant money allows for more internship opportunities and the implementation of new online resources for member students.
Barbara Schneider, a professor with MSU’s College of Education, oversees the study, which appears to be working — through 2015, Schneider said CAP has seen a 12 percent increase in college enrollment among students who otherwise wouldn’t have attended. She said the program isn’t an MSU recruitment tool, but rather focuses solely on getting more kids to college, no matter where they end up attending.
“We don’t work just to bring them to Michigan State University, we help them to try and get a very good match for the type of institution that best fits their interests,” Schneider said. “We’ve had students that have gone to (University of Michigan), we’ve had students that have gone to Cornell, we’ve had students that have gone to Morehouse.”
Spartan involvement in CAP is wide-ranging, as the program requires people and resources from the university. Among many other factors which go into running the study, Schneider named the graduate students from her lab who assist her on the project and financial aid information collected by MSU as a few important pieces that help her determine how best to assist target students.
“We do a lot of work ... to make sure that the kind of services that we’re offering in these schools are really having an impact in terms of what they’re going to do after they graduate from high school,” Schneider said.
CAP doesn’t expand its efforts into the largely more-affluent Detroit suburbs, and it doesn’t appear those suburban students require MSU outreach in the same way the city proper does.
Although Wayne County — where Detroit is located — is home to more than 500,000 more people than suburban Oakland County, Oakland County is actually home to more MSU students. In fall 2017, 8,604 students were from Oakland County, while 5,210 students came from Wayne.
The 2016 Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates show Wayne County has a poverty rate more than twice as high as Oakland County. According to a study published in the Harvard Educational Review, "children from poor families are, generally speaking, the least successful by conventional measures" like attending college.
Detroit's struggles with poverty and education are obvious even to newcomers, as they were to pre-law sophomore Johnathon Finch during his summer internship with the Wayne County Health, Veterans and Community Wellness Department.
Finch was struck by the lack of funding and infrastructure at Detroit Public Schools. He said it was clear to him how poverty in Detroit is affecting children’s educational opportunities, making MSU’s efforts to promote higher education in the city all the more important.
“One of the major things we actually looked at this summer was busing — kids not feeling safe on a bus or riding a bus for two hours to get to school,” Finch said. “That’s just one small aspect, but how even this simple thing, getting bused to school, can affect a child’s education is huge.”
The city’s struggles are far from a myth, but Finch said he was also surprised at how his assumptions about Detroit were largely overblown. Finch, who grew up in rural Wyoming, said the internship was his first experience in a big city. He came into the internship with a “stereotypical concept” of what the city would be like, believing mostly bad things about the city. Instead, the position became a learning experience for him that went beyond simply working as an intern.
"When I actually got to Detroit and lived in the city ... I really noticed how much Detroit is coming back together and how it's rebuilding, and how incredible it is," Finch said.
This revival of the city is crucial to Michigan's growth and success, Ambrose said, so it's important for there to be a partnership between the city of Detroit and MSU in those efforts. While the city's unprecedented shrinkage and economic troubles are a common narrative, Detroit is still the largest city in Michigan — meaning any conversation about the future of the state likely has something to do with Detroit.
"Detroit has been a big part of what happens in the state, from a business and economic standpoint, and so it would make sense that Michigan State, being near the capital of the state, would also then be involved and connected to a lot of the things happening here in the Detroit area," Ambrose said.
Finch sees Detroit in a similar light, calling the city the heart of Michigan because of its diversity, culture and history. Because of MSU's place at the "front of the line" when it comes to statewide influence, he said he believes MSU should be alongside Detroiters, working to create positive change through education — a move that would benefit the university's standing as a leader within Michigan and the state as a whole.
"Some of the programs that MSU has in Detroit really open up kids' eyes to what a city can really start to do when people start working together and when you get the community to build together," Finch said. "I think it's important that Michigan State is there in Detroit and has a presence in Detroit to help guide that revitalization process."
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