Behind the Scenes: Michele Strasz

Executive Director of Capital Area College Access Network

Can you start with a quick overview of the Capital Area College Access Network?

The Capital Area College Access Network’s (CapCAN) mission is to increase the college attainment rate of students, particularly those who are low-income, first-generation and students of color from the capital area. This is accomplished through a community collaborative network made up of leaders from K-12, higher education, business, philanthropy, government and nonprofits dedicated to developing a college-going culture and school-based support for college readiness, participation and completion.

What’s your daily schedule like in your role at CapCAN?

There is no normal day for me. I spend the majority of my day interacting with partners in the community to try to promote the college-going culture; that can include anything from chaperoning a college visit to helping students fill out college applications to meeting with stakeholders and having community collaborative conversations.

The goal of CapCAN is to have 60 percent of capital area residents earn a post-secondary degree, technical certification or valuable credential by 2025. What steps is CapCAN taking to make this a reality?

CapCAN supports the work of college advisors in area high schools to assist with college planning, financial aid and scholarship completion and an array of events to create a college-going culture including college tours, fairs and knowledge seminars.  CapCAN serves students in Ingham County schools with high rates of low-income students eligible for free and reduced lunch with college advising and readiness services. 

We also recently received a grant from Our Community Foundation and matching funds from the General Motors Foundation to support young people ages 16-25 that are disconnected from both school and work.  We will be providing integrated college and career advising to these young adults to support their return to, and persistence in, post-secondary education to achieve full employment. 

What is the current rate, in contrast to that goal?

According to the Stronger Nation report of the Lumina Foundation, Ingham County is at 47.8 percent towards the 60 percent goal of Americans earning a college degree, workforce certificate, industry certification or other high-quality credential beyond high school. The current national average for post-secondary attainment is 45.8 percent; in Michigan, the rate is 43.4 percent.

What current trends in the field of education are important to note?

The intersection of education and careers is a top priority within our community and trend for innovation between K-12 and higher education.  For example, our prosperity region talent district applied to create the first regional Early Middle Technical College.  The Eaton and Clinton Regional Education Service Agencies and Ingham Intermediate School District are collaborating with area businesses and higher education partners to create career and technical education programs of study that provide students with an opportunity to complete their diploma, while simultaneously obtaining an associate’s degree or technical certificate and work-based learning experiences. The partners are aligning programs of study with high-tech, high-demand jobs in areas such as health care, business, advanced manufacturing, welding or criminal justice.  The Capital Region Technical Early College provides students with the opportunity to explore a field in the classroom and the workplace. We anticipate, as this program continues, to scale more students that will have access to post-secondary education.  

Graduating from high school is no longer sufficient for students to transition into the workforce. How has education and the needs of students changed over the last decade?  

According to the 2013 report, Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, 70 percent of Michigan jobs in 2020 will require some level of education beyond high school. Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is critical to our economy, our society and to individuals and their families.  We know that individuals with post-secondary credentials have higher earnings, lower unemployment, lower poverty rates, are healthier and more likely to be active citizens. 

Yet there are tremendous disparities in our community among low-income, first-generation and people of color to obtain a higher education.  Within CapCAN, we target our work and college advising to address barriers to post-secondary education to close the gaps and create opportunity for young people. 

Which local colleges and post-secondary education centers do you work closely with?

CapCAN is very fortunate to have a number of higher education partners serving on our board of directors including representatives from Michigan State University, Lansing Community College, Olivet College and Davenport University. Each one of our higher education partners actively supports our common agenda by participating in local outreach and engagement events, hosting campus visits for students and contributing resources and staff time to creating a vision and system of support for students.  

Given your local base, how do you describe the Lansing community in terms of a capital city with multiple universities and opportunities for educational growth?

Students in the greater Lansing area have fantastic opportunities right in their own backyard for a world-class, post-secondary education. Every young person who wants to pursue higher education can find the right match and fit, whether it be a large, small, urban, rural, public or private experience, and technical or liberal arts program.

We also have a very generous community, which has made college accessible and affordable through place-based scholarships from Lansing Promise, Mason Promise, Holt Promise and local private scholarships.  Despite all of this, we still have many students who are not able to take advantage of these post-secondary opportunities.  This is why our work at CapCAN is so critical to help first-generation students and their families understand and navigate the complex process of application, financial aid and all the systems they might encounter in higher education. 

Where do you think the future of education within the local Lansing area is headed?

I think that we’re definitely moving in a positive direction. Partnerships between education and business, and education – K-12 and higher ed. – are all really good dialogues that are uniting us on the shared goal, the shared vision.

In terms of future opportunities, obviously we want more young people to achieve education beyond high school, whether that’s a two or four-year-degree, a credential through an apprenticeship program or technical program — we all have that shared common vision.

I also see a lot of emerging opportunities to expose young people to what college is like while they’re still in high school; whether that be dual-enrollment in college classes or an early college experience … where students are extending their education for a 13th year so they can take some of their high school classes and college classes simultaneously during that year after they’ve graduated from high school. 

So, by the time they finish that year, they not only have their diploma, but they have also earned their associate’s degree. I think that’s the wave of the future for high school students to be exposed to — not only the college cost, but by actually earning those credits towards a degree or credential. 

This conversation with Michele Strasz has been edited for space and clarity.

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Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn received her degree in Journalism from Lansing Community College. She’s a concert junkie; living and breathing in both the local and national music scene. She is proud to call Lansing her home, finding a new reason every day to be smitten with the mitten.

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