State leaders run wrong way on higher education

The progressive group Business Leaders for Michigan just held a leadership summit devoted to the topic of learning and our state’s economic future. The theme was “Higher Education: A Growth Engine for the New Michigan" and it drew a lot of high-powered, knowledgeable people to the Lansing Center Monday afternoon.

They came from various places and backgrounds, but all agreed we need to see higher education as the engine of innovation, of talent and of our economic future.

The tragedy is that -- as is all too often the case -- the reality is out of synch with how the politicians are operating in Lansing, where petty political considerations all too often trump everything else.

The facts are these: A growing economy requires skilled workers. There is common agreement that we are sorely behind on this score. Michigan will need more than a million additional college graduates to meet work-force demands in 2025. Seven out of 10 new jobs in Michigan already require some post high-school education.

Meanwhile, Michigan employers all across the state are complaining that they cannot find workers with adequate skills to meet their job openings. But the damning truth is that at least one out of every three working-age adults in Michigan lack the basic skills to handle most jobs. In Detroit, it may be half.

You might think, given the changing economy, this would inspire something of a crash program or mini-Marshall Plan to produce a better educated work force. Sadly, there’s nothing of the kind. Bafflingly and tragically, Michigan assigns a low priority to educating our young people. We’re now among the bottom 10 states in per student spending on higher education.

What’s more humiliating is that in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, Michigan will spend nearly twice as much in general fund dollars on prisons ($1.87 billion) than on support for public universities ($1.06 billion). Do we really believe that warehousing felons is more important than educating young people?

That’s what it looks like. And in recent years, Michigan’s been actively chopping higher education budgets.

Over the past decade, we’ve cut around $1 billion. Between 2005-2010, we cut 20 percent in state support for four-year colleges; only Rhode Island and New Mexico cut more. This was followed in 2011 by another 14 percent cut.

By way of perspective, if we wanted to offset the budget reductions of the past nine years and keep a few of our schools as well-supported as they would normally have been, we’d have to remove funding altogether from as many as nine of our 15 public universities!

Naturally, that would never happen, since it would be as politically impossible as unwise.

Republicans control everything in Lansing these days, but there’s bipartisan blame aplenty for what we’ve done to higher education in this state.

Cutting higher education is a long-term trend that has occurred over the course of both Democratic and Republican administrations. When I served on the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents in the 1980s, money from the state roughly equaled tuition and fees. Back in the 1970s, U of M got three times as much from the state as from students and their families.

Today, those figures are starkly reversed: One quarter comes from the state; three-quarters of the U of M’s funding are from tuition and fees. Reduced state support for colleges leads to increasing college tuition and other costs, which in turn balloon debt loads for struggling students and their families.

Michigan public universities now cost more than equivalent schools in other states because they receive less state support than public universities in our competitor states.  In effect, Michigan has chosen to shift the costs of college onto students and their families. In reality, it’s nothing less than a multi-million-dollar “college user tax.”

Interestingly, Michigan universities are more efficient than their rivals. According to the Anderson Economic Group, their administrative costs are $400 per student less than institutions in California, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

They deserve praise for that -- but you would never know that in Lansing, where today higher education is somewhat of a pariah. Policy-makers complain about arrogant universities hiding behind constitutional autonomy. Some threaten to reduce appropriations as punishment for various “sins” such as conducting legal stem cell research or providing health insurance for students.

That may be baffling, but three things are very clear:

* The logic of increasing state support for higher education is compelling.

* Our long history of chopping spending for higher education is self-defeating, mystifying and highly damaging.

* The compound impact on our state’s young people and their families is terrible: High tuition, high student debt, followed by the out-migration of talented graduates who are dispirited by our poor economic prospects.

It’s as if our policy-makers are determined to keep hitting ourselves on the head with a hammer. It’s time to stop this self-destructive behavior. The folks who attended the Business Leaders for Michigan meeting agreed. Maybe the folks who work in Lansing should put down the hammer, put on their eyeglasses ...

And look for the path to a brighter future for us all.

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 chairman 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.

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Joe Zurawski
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 8:40am
I am certain this comment will generate a firestorm. It IS a basic responsibility of the Legislature to provide for the safety of the residents of the state. It is NOT a basic responsibility of the Legislature to provide for education. That falls under the category of things that are good to do if there is money to do it. That said, I am unconvinced the Michigan Department of Corrections is doing their part to provide for the safety of the residents by operating as efficiently as they could. in fact I am convinced they could be providing a significantly higher level of safety at a lower cost, thereby allowing more funds to be spent elsewhere like on education, if they changed the way they operated. One example is the "Bootcamp" program that proved effective but has been discontinued. Perhaps it's effectiveness is the very reason it was eliminated. It has been widely reported for many years how Michigan spends more per capita, more per prisoner, and more by just about any measure you choose than do the majority of the states. It is long past time the entire organization and operating methods of the MDOC be "Benchmarked" against the other more successful states and bring ours up to their standards. Do that and more funds will become available to be spent elsewhere, like for example on education.
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 10:02am
I agree! I love the phrase "college user tax", that perfectly sums it up. This state has embarked on a decade long assault on our colleges, blaming professor salaries and administration for continual increases in tuition, when in fact it is the state's continued decline in funding. The lies have to stop!
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 10:40am
Good article, perhaps the political leaders should recoginize the issues/problems and face them in an honest fashion. Stop demonizing gov employees and unions, stop tring to one-up the other party, or playing "gotcha" policy making, and deal with the issues. I don't forsee that happening anytime soon, but it is a nice dream.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 12:19pm
And yet despite Michigan, or perhaps other states too, not providing sustained financial support for colleges and universities, 19.7 million students were enrolled in the nation's colleges and universities this fall. This is up from 14.4 million 20 years ago. Source: U.S. National Center for Education Statistics as cited in the Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011, Table 215 I believe we would find that overall, Michigan colleges and universities and vocational/technical schools have been on a growth binge in the last decade. NPR reported today that "A new Rutgers University survey of those who graduated from college between 2006 and 2011 finds that just half of those grads are working full time." --- so tell me again, why should more money be thrown at higher education?
Mike R
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 12:52pm
Mr. Salisbury missed the point of both Phil's article (that Michigan will undeniably need more graduates in order to compete with those millions of graduates from other states) and the NPR report (that the cost of student loans is a national economic time bomb ready to explode). Further, the statistics he quotes do not support his thesis , i.e. that because nationwide lots people want to go to college but there's a shortage of jobs for them, QED there are too many college bound students in Michigan and there's no need to assist them.
Jeff Salisbury
Fri, 05/11/2012 - 12:59pm
The education categories and wages of the occupations with the largest numbers of NEW JOBS are considerably different than those of the FASTEST GROWING occupations. Only three (of 20) of these occupations are in the associate’s degree or higher category. and Universities in Michigan have been on 20-year growth binge - it's about time they "right-size" their businesses.
Mike R
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 12:30pm
I applaud Phil's comments (I usually do). They couldn't come at a more propitious (and ironic) time given Attorney General Bill "Law, Order, and Prisons Above All Else!" Schuette's ill-conceived determination to inflate the prison population with a "three strikes" law. Contrast Phil's reasoned approach (take a lesson from the comparative success of other states) with Mr. Schuette's deliberate 'know nothing' blindness to the near-ruin California has brought on itself by its disastrous experiment with three strikes. I can only hope the ever-fewer citizens of this state finally wake up and smell the coffee of a government dominated by one mean-spirited, self-serving political party.
Thu, 05/10/2012 - 12:35pm
So ..... how do you propose we get kids to study for the subjects areas that employers want to hire instead of the mushy stuff that most major in and that lead straight to a career in food service? What about private colleges, aren't those students just as important to our economy? From your article it sounds like just another spend more money whining session with no new thinking or real solutions. If I'm wrong what are they?
Fri, 05/11/2012 - 12:19am
Mr. Powers sees it as everyone elses problem just not the kids problem. "But the damning truth is that at least one out of every three working-age adults in Michigan lack the basic skills to handle most jobs." the reality is that until the kids decide to learn no matter how much money is spent, how wonderful the teachers, how insightful the administrators are we will still have an under educated population because this kids do try to learn. The part of this lack of interest shows up in how those that are under educated do have a work ethic that is necessary for businesses to sustain themselves and provide jobs. I wonder if Mr. Power has ver asked about the work ethic of those we should be so concerned about, are they willing to show up on time day day out? Are they willing to listen to those who they are working for and with? Are they willing to even come to work in the proper attire? Mr. Power doesn't seem to understand that simply providing 'degree' does make people educated, it doesn't make them willing to sacrifice to have the necessary work ethic, it does make them willing and able to fill the jobs that are going begging. It is disappointing the Mr. Power is so willing to blame those that have made the sacrifices to become educated, to earn the money from those sacrifices, to be unwilling to simply continue to give their money to a failed system and to uninterested kids through the schools. I wonder if Mr. Power will ever get off the blame game and simply ask why the students don;t care enough to sacrifice and learn.
Wed, 11/28/2018 - 9:47am

This is an excellent example of why most of us don't consider this publication to be very liberal instead of non-partisan. It would be very helpful to have a point counterpoint discussion of issues like this. You make it sound like there is only one side to the story. I was particularly disappointed in your coverage of marijuana. Frankly, based on the Colorado experience as presented by Colorado residents, there is really no positive, especially for youth, for business, for the future of MI.