Cutting our universities, harming our future

There’s no doubt about one thing: Michigan needs a better educated workforce, more now than ever.

Yet one of the abiding mysteries of the past dozen years is the strange reluctance of our state’s leaders to invest in our future by investing in our citizens' brain power at colleges and universities.

“Reluctance,” in fact, isn’t the right term. Thinly veiled hostility is more like it. That’s a puzzle, because on the surface it looks like shortchanging higher education is cutting off our nose to spite our face. After all, Michigan employers say they’ve got jobs for 70,000 people – if only they could find applicants with the proper skills.

Statistics compiled by the House Fiscal Agency showed that unemployment for high school grads without a college degree is 10.6 percent, compared to 4.1 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Indeed, earlier this month the House Fiscal Agency – a nonpartisan body – issued a report concluding that students at Michigan universities could blame state politicians for something like 60 percent of the college tuition increases over the past 13 years.

That’s because, as the report shows, the lawmakers have cut appropriations by a total of $325 million since 2000. That‘s a 40 percent reduction when adjusted for inflation!

That’s almost the biggest decline in support for higher ed in the nation. Indeed, according to a State Higher Education Executive officers report, Michigan is outranked only by Rhode Island and New Mexico in cutting higher education budgets.

When I first joined the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents in 1987, state support represented around 75 percent of total revenue; tuition and fees accounted for around a quarter. Today, it’s exactly the reverse!

Talking with Lansing insiders about Michigan universities reveals a wide range of views, some very critical of higher ed; some supportive. One well-connected insider put it in a nutshell: “Today’s Lansing environment is terrible for universities.”

Some think the schools have brought that on themselves. “They consider themselves unaccountable,” said another. “They’re asked for metrics, for tuition restraint, for greater link between courses offered and the needs of the Michigan work force. They say don’t bother, they’re autonomous – and that’s that.”

The Michigan Constitution says public universities, especially the Big Three – U of M, Michigan State University and Wayne State – are independent of the legislature or governor in setting policy.

That doesn’t sit well with elected lawmakers who figure they’re the ones who should be at the top of the food chain.

Nor does it help soften legislative attitudes when universities appear to be wasting public resources on turf competition among universities; cited repeatedly were Central Michigan and Western Michigan Universities, both with dueling billboards in the Lansing area. Couch-burning and other disorderly conduct in East Lansing after Michigan State beat Ohio State this month doesn’t help, either.

Universities also suffer from a structural political problem: The fact that relatively few families in a given legislative district have students at college at any one time, whereas many families have kids in that district’s elementary and secondary schools. “They started to cut the universities,” one source told me, “and there was no political backlash. If there’s no pain in cutting, why not keep doing it?”

Despite the record of solid support for higher education during the years Republican John Engler was governor, the “let’s cut ‘em” attitude seems pretty much evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who started her term in office by a “listening tour” around the state, reported most people told her to cut higher education, and she did … by around 18 per cent over eight years. Her successor, Gov. Rick Snyder, cut higher education funding by 15 percent in his first year in office.

That’s a puzzle. Granholm holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Yale Law School, while Snyder has three degrees from the University of Michigan. Of all people, they both should know the value of a great education.

However, while I got an earful of grumbling in Lansing, I also got the impression that legislative attitudes are much better than they were a couple years ago. Some senior legislative leaders realize that while it’s easy to mortally wound a good university, it’s very hard to resurrect it. All in all, I wouldn’t be surprised to see serious attention being given to higher ed funding in the state’s next budget.

There’s no doubt in my mind that one of Michigan’s few world-competitive advantages today are our universities, especially  U-M and MSU. Given today‘s realities, it would make enormous sense for our state’s economic future to have the universities, the governor and the legislature sit down and reason together.

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Mon, 12/16/2013 - 9:23pm
"That doesn’t sit well with elected lawmakers who figure they’re the ones who should be at the top of the food chain". The last thing we need is the state legislature trying to micro manage the policies of state universities, they have shown themselves incompetent in their understanding of education in general.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 3:05pm
***, There are a couple of reasons to micro manage either you aren;t getting the results you need or you don't trust the people you have in the roles fo deliver the desired results. Many of those who don't trust can have a personal problem or they may not have control who is select for the critical roles. To avoid going down the wasteful path of micro managing I encourage well defined expectations, of organizations and programs, with the means to assess the effectiveness in achieving those expecations.
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 10:10pm
Mr. Power talks about thinly veiled hostility, when he points that finger at others he is pointing three fingers at himself. Mr. Power is a one 'trick pony', he wants to spend other people's money, state wide taxes, rather then open up to look for new approaches, look at the institutions, looking at getting value for the taxpayer dollars. It seems Mr. Power doesn;t trust the taxpayers, whose money he wants to spend, enough ask them what they think, he doesn't want to hear why there is such distrust, he doesn't want to risk upsetting those in the universities, he doesn't want to hold our institutions of higher learning accountable the way he wants to how our politicians or private businesses. It could be construed by the way Mr. Power's writes that he wants other people's money for the universities/colleges to spend, but he never wants those organizations and their programs held accountable for providing value with that money. Mr. Power never shows any interest in why so many graduates from those hallowed institutions are struggling to pay their students loans from the low paying jobs they get. I wonder if I will ever be amazed and hear Mr. Power ask a question and actually listen to the answers. Obviously Ms. Granholm didn't know how to ask the questions and then listen to the answers. Mr. Power rally doesn't want, "it would make enormous sense for our state’s economic future to have the universities, the governor and the legislature sit down and reason together.", he his sense is that he only wants more of other people's money given to those universities of his choice.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 9:00am
Duane, You really should check your own spelling and grammar if you are going to try and argue that universities should be held more accountable. PhD Student
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 2:57pm
PhD, You are correct, my spelling/typing skills and my grammar should be improved. I am a product of the Michigan public schools. I think you make my point, if spelling/typing and grammar are more important then ideas and results then our univeristyies/colleges/K-12 schools are less interested in the success of their graduates than they are in their budgets and practices so Michigan taxpayer could benefit by holding those institutions accountable. A former employer address your concerns with a technical solution (MS Office) for their employees so they were getting ideas and actions that provided desired results. The company found that holding people and programs accountable for the impact on company sustainability (meeting and exceeding cusotmer expectations) was a most effective tool. Now that we have identified my areas for improvement, which seems like an example of accountability. Are you willing to discuss the merits of holding the universities/colleges accountable for the results they deliver with the money they are spending? Or are you in alinged with Mr. Power's view that they should simply be given more and more of other people's money to spend?
Darryle Buchanan
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 10:51am
Here's something to ponder: In Michigan we spend on average $7,500.00 per student to educate them based on the average state foundation allowance. We spend $37,500.00 per year to warehouse prisoners in the state correctional system. 5X as much for much longer terms than their 13 years in K-12. It would be cheaper to send them to college with a better ROI and benefits to the state. Not proposing that we do (don't want to hear that backlash), but it seems that our priorities are not aligned. Unless of course the intent is to create a permanent underclass that will continue to burden our resources, with no ascertainable benefit to the state. I'm not saying that all of our students are being prepared for or heading to prison, but the evidence is clear that there is a connection between education and crime. In a knowledge based economy, education is primary to our state's fortunes for years to come. Let's get our priorities straight; educators and legislators. Neither can continue to work autonomously from the other.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 3:12pm
Darryle, You seem to exclude the individual and how/why they were selected to be in the program particular program while focusing on the dollars.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 3:48pm
You obviously haven't spent much time with cons.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 6:00pm
matt, I have not spent much time with convicted felons. Will explain to me how that effects Darryle's comparing the cost of K-12 education vs. prison incarceration? It seems to me that the purpose of imprisonment and the purpose of K-12 education are not similar, and that difference is great that it undermines any rationale for comparing their costs.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 4:58pm
Rather than just mindlessly throwing more money at our colleges and U's why not redirect it (even increase it) and create a "Tuition Reimbursement Tax Credit"? Pay back say, 2?x the amount an individual pays in state income taxes for a period of 10? years up to some percentage of their tuition expenditures. I'm sure the recipient would welcome the help in paying back student loans. And this would make sure that our tax payer higher Ed investment goes to Grads who A: Stay in Michigan and B:Actually work, paying taxes and more likely will remain a future MI tax payer. If Mr. Powers is really interested in creating more in state grads rather than just throwing more money with all the poor incentives intact that come with it, there you go! While thinking about it , why limit to public colleges or even Mi schools we shouldn't care where they come from, we just want them here. Maybe even poach other state's college grads! Some how I don't think this is what Mr Powers has in mind.
David Waymire
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 5:53pm
“They’re asked for metrics, for tuition restraint, for greater link between courses offered and the needs of the Michigan work force. They say don’t bother, they’re autonomous – and that’s that.” Well, the reality is: They have provided extensive metrics: have had price, tuition restraint...for several years, even in the face of state budget cuts. And if someone can tell me the needs of the Michigan workforce in 2030, I'd be interested in seeing it. Students are given the opportunity to select from a great number of courses that can make the well rounded future employees. Any student who takes a course to meet "the needs of the Michigan workforce" in the first year they are out of school needs to be sure they are also taking courses to meet "the needs of the Michigan workforce" for a lifetime. And nobody knows what those might be. But the quote is a good example of a small-minded lawmaker who is not seeking additional information that is available.
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 9:14pm
David, I went to the website yo linked to. I didn't find any metrics about the graduates, such as their ability to repay loans, the nature of their employement and the person return on their investment in their degrees. Maybe I have the wrong view of what metrics we need to be tracking and what we hold the colleges/universities accountable for. I look to the impact they have not how they compare to their peers in funding. It would seem that education at the college and univeristy level would be more about preparing the students for future success than it would be about the colleges. I have to admit, I learned to be customer success focus rather than internal organization focused. I would rather see the employement rate and the salary data of graduates then the budget amount or the faculty to student ratios of the university. What do you think the metrics the public should be interest in?
Charles Richards
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 10:06pm
I have read that anywhere from 35% to 50% of Michigan college graduates leave the state after graduation. So, precisely what is the point of investing more public money in the university system? We are, in effect, subsidizing the economies of the other forty-nine states. Now, that's very decent and public spirited of us, and I am sure it is a benefit to the nation as a whole, but I cannot see that it is a particularly effective way to grow Michigan's economy. Mr. Power is confusing cause and effect. We have a first rate university system because we were a wealthy state. We weren't wealthy because we had a great university system. We were wealthy because we extracted economic rents from the rest of the country because we had a captive market for cars that were often mediocre. The importation of Japanese cars, and the building of transplant factories in this country, put an end to that. Yes, the way to restore Michigan's prosperity is a better trained work force with more human capital. But pouring more money into colleges and universities is not necessarily the most effective way to do that. Why shouldn't students finance their own education? After all, they are the ones deriving the benefit of higher incomes. Gary Becker has pointed out that a college degree is, depending on the amount of debt incurred for what degree, an excellent investment for a student. If students lack the perseverance, ambition and self-discipline to sacrifice present day pleasures for future rewards, then subsidizing their education is a complete waste.
Hector Solon
Wed, 12/18/2013 - 12:02pm
Phil: Sorry but WHERE WERE YOU & Michigan Higher Education filks (with a few notable exceptions) during the past 3 years as the on-going train of mostly Engler "education reform" and American Legislative Exchange Council (#ALEC) model legislation ala Richard McLellan (Mackinac Center founder & Center for Michigan Board member) has been pounding bill by bill (out of McLellan's 302 page draft) agenda item by item at the long-standing Michigan tradition of secondary Public Education? Making the point that Higher Education is next in line, shows you are either indifferent, ignorant or part of this agenda. Are you? Rick Snyder's education tagline comes straight front the FL virtual school, the "performance-based" budget requirements by MDE directly out of the ALEC budget toolkit, the bills on K-3 Reading (failing 3rd graders), A-F School Ratings (actually that was promoted by Engler using ALEC in 1998 too), the proposed "Patriot Week", expanded manditory testing, and Detroit Education Achievement Authority (EAA) is based on Louisiana's Recovery School district, which is an ALEC model... on and on and on. Either admit (address / cover / investigate) what is REALLY going on in this State's legislature, or get out of the way. Why should anyone listen to "experts" who do long pieces without EVER mentioning the orgins of the concepts and "word-for-word" ;language of what is really happening to our State? Stand up "and do".... something. Ignore Amway & Mackinac Center, and get some courage for Pete's sake.
Sun, 12/22/2013 - 11:49am
More and better support for higher education pays off, and in more ways than in educating students. A visit to Boston and vicinity shows a first-rate and thriving region, helped along by the immense investment and output of Harvard College, Law, Business and Medical Schools , MIT, Boston University, Tufts College and Medical School,. the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston College, the University of Massachusetts and a few more such places. This brings billions of dollars into the economy and produces the students who clearly promote the general welfare. Many of these institutions are private, but Michigan has a different model where the major universities are public. What attracts people to Massachusetts is the type of society that is created, in part, by a great University system. If Michigan wants to continue with the race to the bottom, depleting the Universities of resources is one way to speed things along.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 12/22/2013 - 1:39pm
Mr. Powers, thank you for your columns this year. I don't often agree with you, but I enjoy hearing your ideas. I hope you will get a chance to read Diane Ravitch's book Reign of Error.