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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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