I've been observing Michigan public policy discussions for nearly 50 years. It's amazing that, so often, it's as though people with differing views live in two different universes.
Take Michigan universities. Analysis presented last week in Bridge showed costs at Michigan public universities are higher than the average at comparable schools around the country and that student debt in our state has ballooned to $1.8 billion for last year alone.
The folks at the universities say this is the result of decades of Michigan elected officials choosing to skim money from higher education. The less state support, the argument goes, the higher schools have to push tuition and fees. And there's some historical evidence: In the 1970s, the state covered around three quarters of total university costs; today, the numbers are reversed – and tuition has soared.
It's not unreasonable to conclude that Michigan has imposed a stiff “college use tax” on hundreds of thousands of Michigan students and their families.
The folks in the Legislature, particularly the House of Representatives, couldn't disagree more. They think the universities are constantly whining for more state money and asserting their constitutional autonomy immunizes them from legislative attempts to cut costs, enforce productivity and apply graduation standards.
Rep. Bob Genetski, R–Saugatuck and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, is an outspoken critic of how universities spend money. In an interview with Bridge's Ron French, published last week, Genetski talked about whether Michigan has made a conscious policy choice to have college paid for by individual families, as opposed to by the state:
"We're not saying we don't care about higher education. ... But there are so many places we can cut, and higher education happens to be one of those. It happens also to be one where, as soon as you cut it, (universities) can turn around and, instead of looking inward for legitimate cuts, increase tuition. ... Parents tell me universities don't make a strong effort to make cuts. Taxpayers deserve better."
While university and legislative ships pass in the night, the facts of Michigan's damaging and unsustainable higher education policies wind up giving nearly everybody the shaft.
Students and their families are paying way above national market price for degrees at Michigan universities. Many are scared off by costs from getting a college degree in the first place. Many able kids leave the state to get cheaper degrees elsewhere; most don't come back.
College graduates are burdened by crushing debt at high interest rates. Families in hock to student loan outfits aren't going to buy cars, houses or much of anything. Student debt last year – $1.8 billion – far exceeds total state support for higher education ($1.2 billion). Declining state support has been converted into ballooning student debt.
Michigan's economy, which depends on lots of college-educated folks in the work force, is suffering. Many high-tech start-ups depend on inventions from university labs migrating into the business world. Starved universities are unlikely to be robust innovators.
Michigan employers are crying out for better-trained, more-skilled workers -- workers with college degrees. Fewer Michigan kids going to college means fewer productive workers for Michigan businesses -- and that means our economy doesn't grow as fast as it could.
Putting up with the mutual incomprehension and joint acrimony that we've seen over the past decade hurts everybody. Surely we can do better -- especially when it's clear everybody's hurt by the present stalemate.
A starting point would be for university leaders and legislators to sit down -- together with economists and representatives of the business community and the Governor's Office -- and start talking candidly to each other about higher education and Michigan's prosperity.
One result might be agreement on a set of outcome-based performance metrics for universities that could be used to allocate state support. Another would be to set an overall state policy objective to fund Michigan universities over time at a level comparable to top 10 states – if they meet or exceed the performance of peer institutions.
For years, everyone has paid lip service to the assertion that our universities are among our state's crown jewels. And, for years, we've been leading the nation in kicking sand on the diamonds. It's way past time for that to stop.
Editor's note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan's dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power's own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.