Before election, Gov. Snyder turns eye toward college affordability

Reflections on Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for our next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1...

It’s beginning to look as though Snyder is thinking of his time in office in two main blocks. The first, from taking office in 2011 through this November’s vote, has been about restructuring the financial underpinnings of the state: Fixing the business tax, getting balanced state budgets adopted on time, and so forth.

The second, assuming voters give him another four years, will be about rebuilding Michigan’s seriously frayed economic infrastructure. Snyder’s emphasis on investing in education is at the core of his budget message, delivered last week. He wants a 6.1 percent increase for public universities, 2.8 percent for elementary and high schools and another $65 million for his pre-kindergarten Great Start Readiness Programs (GSRP).

The budget is both largely sensible on its face and politically shrewd, since it looks as though spending on schools will be a big part of this year’s political argument. The governor’s budget proposal is obviously designed to counter claims he’s shortchanging education.

Without any doubt, higher education in Michigan has been irresponsibly savaged over the years: Seven straight cuts since 2000, including a 15 percent drop during Snyder’s first year, made our state nearly first in the nation at cutting support for colleges.

While it will certainly help if Snyder can get the legislature to add his requested $76.9 million for higher education, Michigan still should be greatly embarrassed that it spends more on warehousing criminals in state prisons ($ 2 billion) than on public universities ($1.5 billion).

Along with the increases, the governor is emphasizing university tuition restraint by capping allowable increases at 3.2 per cent. (Universities that go over that figure will lose some of their state aid package.)

For years, polls have suggested the main concern of Michigan voters is jobs and unemployment. But I’ve seen some new numbers that suggest public attitudes are changing. Concern about college affordability has been increasing as families begin to realize how much college debt they’re run up over the past decade. Keeping the lid on tuition hikes is also good politically, although universities have a legitimate point that tuition increases over the last decade have been provoked by matching cuts in state support.

The state’s early childhood initiative, the Great Start Readiness Program, has been a great success on almost all counts. Last year, after Bridge Magazine found that 30,000 poor and vulnerable 4-year-olds eligible for the program couldn’t get in because enough slots hadn’t been funded, the governor endorsed and the legislature adopted a $65 million increase.

The Michigan Department of Education eventually calculated that the extra state money resulted in another 16,000 4-year-olds getting a head start toward success in school.

For once, Michigan wound up looking good by leading the nation in increasing support for early childhood programs, and Snyder is keeping up the momentum by fulfilling his pledge for a second round of increases for GSRP. The hope is that this increased funding will eliminate the waiting list, although it is a challenge to reach the poorest and most vulnerable families who need such programs most.

Expanding this program is critically important. Advocates for both early childhood and higher education all point out that Michigan’s economy is helped over the long run by increased state support for what might be called programs to add to our stock of “human capital” – the sum total of skills and talent in our workforce. The state’s Great Start Readiness Program has an excellent record of success in helping kids graduate, go on to post-high school programs and become skilled workers. Our universities are also contributing to Michigan’s economic growth, although we need to develop ways to encourage graduates to stay here rather than move to Chicago or California.

One idea Snyder and the legislature might want to look at comes from Tennessee, where Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in his budget message last week proposed making free two years of community college or technical school to all students who graduate from high school, without regard to academic credentials or financial need.

“We just need to change the culture of expectations in our state,” Haslam told the New York Times. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive workforce.”

Tennessee estimates this would cost the state around $34 million each year, paid for by diverting revenue from the state lottery. Since Michigan (population 9.9 million) is bigger than Tennessee (population 6.4 million), such a program here would likely cost more – but not much more.

It’s generally accepted that the higher the percentage of post-high school credentialed people in the workforce, the better a state’s economy.

Nationwide, 37 per cent of the workforce holds either a two- or four-year degree; Michigan is just a shade behind, at 36 percent; in Tennessee, it is under 30 percent. The Cherry Commission, convened by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, recommended doubling the percentage of college graduates in the Michigan workforce within a decade, but it didn’t happen.

Business Groups, including Business Leaders for Michigan, have been calling for years for increased support for state universities to provide a stream of workers with degrees. Many in the business community say they could fill immediately something like 60,000 jobs if they could find workers with the required skills.

Without being as radical as those of his Tennessee counterpart, Snyder’s budget proposals represent a move in the right direction. Although the state legislature (surprise!) likes the idea of reducing taxes in an election year, here’s hoping the governor is able to keep investments in human capital high on the state’s priority list.

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Mon, 02/10/2014 - 9:57pm
Before we once again act out the famous definition of insanity is it possible to ask and answer a few questions? #1 What percentage of the graduates we're getting are filling jobs that would actually require their acquired education (and investment)? #2 Of our graduates who do take jobs in their field of study, how many stay in Michigan? #3 With all the unfilled jobs we hear sitting and waiting for the taking, How many students do we have actually preparing for these positions? #4 Is it possible that a better return to the taxpayers and students is possible by directing aid to students or employers rather than traditional higher ed institutions? Just for starters....
Tue, 02/11/2014 - 8:51am
Good start, Matt. Maybe even more creativity? Have Michigan students take out loans for their education at any of Michigan's public or private non-profit institutions, and divert the tuition allocations to loan re-payment for those who remain and work in Michigan.
Tue, 02/11/2014 - 10:14am
I think this is a right direction, except are you only rewarding people who go into debt verses those who don't to finance their education? Another question do we really care whether someone attended a school in Michigan? Or is it the fact that they are living here contributing to the Mi economy? Isn't even better to poach someone who some other state's taxpayers paid to educate? Ideally I think I'd have the benefit where ever they came from.
Charles Richards
Tue, 02/11/2014 - 2:17pm
These are all excellent questions that deserve detailed answers. I particularly like question No. 4, which asks, " Is it possible that a better return to the taxpayers and students is possible by directing aid to students or employers rather than traditional higher ed institutions?"
Tue, 02/11/2014 - 10:50am
It is far too late to make 4 year colleges and universities affordable. The debt incurred by most graduates if they are fortunate enough to find work in their related field is near impossible to repay. I know from dozens of personal experiences and conversations this is the case. Quit pumping out degrees where there is little hope of gaining employment. Start in Community colleges. Consider alternatives like 2 year,certificate and apprenticeship careers.. I could go on for hours on this one R.L.
Howard Wetters
Tue, 02/11/2014 - 8:35pm
When I attended MSU (Graduated in 1975) the state paid nearly 70% of the cost of my education. This year the state will pay something like 19% of the cost of education. It may well be too late to fix this but it is still necessary to move the state's investments in higher education back to a point where they make college education affordable to those who seek it. I could make enough money during the summer to pay for tuition and books if I worked part time. Today's students should have the ability to do the same .
Charles Richards
Tue, 02/11/2014 - 3:00pm
Mr. Power says, "It’s generally accepted that the higher the percentage of post-high school credentialed people in the workforce, the better a state’s economy." But which way does the causation run? Isn't it possible that a state with a good economy attracts talented, educated people? Matt makes an excellent point when he says, " Isn’t even better to poach someone who some other state’s taxpayers paid to educate? Ideally I think I’d have the benefit where ever they came from." That's particularly cogent when you realize that 35% to 50% of Michigan's college graduates leave the state.
Wed, 02/12/2014 - 12:56pm
The constant statement that more college degrees mean higher income or higher wealth or such that Phil and many others always trot out is more of the same intellectual laziness common out there. Could it be more valid to say more wealthy/higher income parents are more likely to send their kids to college? No doubt! there! Also could children of upper income/wealth be more likely to be above average income themselves? To take Phil and others argument to its logical conclusion if we sent 100% of our students to college would we reach Nirvana? Does anyone believe this? What unintended consequences would come out of this? As it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I am not against education or any sort, but I think it needs to be massively rethought rather than following the education establishment blather.
Fri, 02/14/2014 - 10:40am
Mr. Power seems to feel that appearances are one of the important things we should be concerned with, “For once, Michigan wound up looking good by leading the nation in increasing support for early childhood programs…”, no mention of the results he expects it to provide. Mr. Power seems to have little interest in results, “Michigan still should be greatly embarrassed that it spends more on warehousing criminals in state prisons ($ 2 billion) than on public universities ($1.5 billion).” He seems to make no consideration of the different purposes of prisons and universities, he only sees other people’s money to be spend and not what they will get for that money. He seems to feel that putting people in prison is not as important to the victims and public as putting people in universities. He doesn’t waste any effort on telling us why. He doesn’t seem to trust our judgments and only wants what he wants. Maybe it is my sheltered life and his vast experience that create our different approaches, but I seem to believe in public will more than Mr. Power and trust to the public by offering more of the why to my views than Mr. Power. He always seems to have THE answer and never engages those who disagree or consider others ideas maybe more effective.
Fri, 02/21/2014 - 2:27pm
No offense, but most people don't operate on themselves. They leave that to well-trained doctors. The rich hire experts to manage their money rather than do it themselves with Charles Schwab. My bet is that Mr. Powers is much more capable of advising you on policy than the reverse even though you may watch Fox News. We are spending more money on prisons because of a lack of investment in education and training in addition to a global economy that is siphoning jobs. Michigan taxpayers spend more than $30,000 a year to house a state prisoner that is probably there for a nonviolent, drug-related crime. America arrests over 700,000 pot smokers annually at a cost to taxpayers of billions while we cut state and federal funding to education, transportation, housing and health. We must overcome the fear of fear that the media and their eager prison lobbyists are saturating us with including mandatory sentencing. States with progressive rather than regressive "cultures" (i.e. Calvinism, evangelicals, rural conservatism, blue collar bigots) like Colorado have already legalized pot and are making millions off its taxation without the sky falling. Education is important but so are incentives/requirements to keep jobs stateside. Steelcase, Amway and other locally-owned companies have sent thousands of jobs outside the US to communist and developing countries where wages are cheap. We have the skilled labor but we can't live on $10 a day. Education will help, but we also have a surplus of under-employed and unemployed college grads. No one wants to say it but there aren't enough jobs at any level...period. Global companies also "cherry-pick" the top professionals internationally. Entrepreneurs are great but, like Apple, most of their jobs in manufacturing or programming find their way overseas. Republicans are slow to catch on but alternative, renewable sources of energy should be a focus for Michigan research and manufacturing. America may be awash in energy but the world is not. Global warming and health-threatening pollution are real. However, ensuring the best and the brightest of all income-levels have a quality education is a goal worth funding.