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.