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Legislators want to run, not pay for, Mich. universities

Spring budget treks to the State Capitol by the presidents of Michigan’s public universities weren’t always this pointless.

When lawmakers appropriated half the money or more that universities spent for operations, it paid for presidents to express gratitude to the veteran legislators whose long careers were built on protecting the interests of their favored (hometown) campuses, but also of higher education generally.

Vestiges of that era remain. It’s no accident that Northern Michigan University, beneficiary of Dominic Jacobetti’s four decades in the House, still receives $2,100 more in per-student state aid in 2012 than Grand Valley State University, 18 years after “The Godfather” from Negaunee died in office.

The $2,365 per-student GVSU receives is the fourth lowest, President Thomas Haas reminded House appropriators this month, some of whom have been in office fewer than 18 months. Fourth lowest in Michigan? Nope. Fourth lowest in the nation. At $52.7 million, GVSU’s state aid covers about 17 percent of the annual operating budget.  

Repairing the fiscal damage, if that indeed is going to be the aim, apparently is going to take some time. Gov. Rick Snyder has thrown $36 million in one-time “performance” funding into the pot to encourage the schools to award more degrees more quickly -- in areas of science and technology the state's economy would benefit from.

The Senate’s version reported out of subcommittee last Thursday, the most logical approach, would spread half of the increase without strings. Another $9 million would go to schools that hold tuition to under 3.5 percent. The other $9 million would be based on how schools perform on degree completion, compared not to each other but to peer institutions nationwide.

The House bill is another matter entirely and illustrates one of the larger problems with higher ed funding inMichigan: The less money the Legislature provides, the more influence the Legislature believes it should have over the higher education mission.

That’s kind of the opposite of what sections 4, 5 and 6 of Article VIII of the Michigan Constitution say about the Legislature’s requirement to appropriate money to “maintain” (defined in the dictionary as "to keep in a condition of good repair or efficiency," Haas reminded lawmakers) the four-year universities. And to leave the supervision as to how it’s spent to appointed or elected university governing boards.

Not to be punitive or anything, but the University of Michigan and Michigan State University would receive no increase in state aid if they don’t alter policies Republicans on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education object to.

In U-M’s case, Republicans want more detailed reporting on embryonic stem-cell research than the university provided per last year's instructions, which Snyder said were unconstitutional. Irked that the two schools are "thumbing their noses" at the subcommittee’s demands, they also are insisting that MSU scrap its new requirement that full-time undergraduates have health insurance.

Any of the 15 schools that don’t abide by the House’s specific tuition limits would be similarly penalized. MSU’s 2013 tuition limit is zero as the House continues to insist that last year's cap was busted. U-M’s is 2.8 percent. The others average out to about 5 percent. Both international universities no doubt will adjust their out-of-state enrollment accordingly.

For all the talk of metrics and performance, the Legislature doesn’t much concern itself with its own performance in assuring university access and degree completion. Nor do lawmakers seem particularly motivated to improve upon it.

A decade ago, state appropriations funded about half of university operating budgets. In 2012, it’s 22 percent. At some schools like Ferris State University, it’s less than 15 percent. State aid per student exceeded $6,700 in fiscal 2002 when the state appropriated $1.65 billion for university operations. In the current year, a $1.2 billion budget provides just $4,600 per student.

Don’t forget that the Michigan Promise scholarship inexplicably axed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm provided $4,000 per qualifying student for the first two years of college. Haas told the House committee that tuition at his school would be $3,000 less this year had the state simply been able to maintain Fiscal 2002 funding levels.

Doug Rothwell at the Business Leaders forMichigan wants lawmakers to get on a path of boosting state aid by $1 billion annually over the next 10 years. A start on how to pay for it would maintain the state’s current income tax rate of 4.35 percent. Rep. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, suggested a variation on that last Friday, but was shot down.

As most of the university presidents who testified last month pointed out, accountability is a two-way street given the relationship between tuition and state aid effort. While Snyder and lawmakers are properly concerned with ensuring that students are able to earn a degree in six years' time, the present focus on that outcome conveniently ignores the rising cost of doing so -- a cost inflated by lawmakers themselves.

That the state now professes to be looking out for the best interests of students is pretty rich given budget policy that has more than doubled their price of attendance since 10 years of cutting began. All those who want to rectify those cuts have to do is explain where the money's going to come from to do it.

Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.


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