Fewer students, tepid state funding roil Michigan public universities

CMU hallway

There are 6,000 fewer undergrads roaming the hallways of Central Michigan University than there were at the beginning of the decade. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

MOUNT PLEASANT—One dormitory is closed this school year and another is operating under capacity. Dozens of degree programs have been shuttered, and classes are increasingly being led by part-time faculty.

From his office in 92-year-old Warriner Hall, Central Michigan University President Bob Davies is fighting wars on two fronts. CMU, which Davies bills as “two hours away from every great spot in Michigan,” is hemorrhaging student enrollment ‒ down 21 percent over the past decade, and almost 18 percent in just the past five years. 

The school has lost an average of 1,164 students a year since 2014 – the equivalent of a Chippewa Marching Band parading off campus and never returning three times a year.

CMU has plenty of company. Six of Michigan’s 15 public universities have seen double-digit percentage enrollment drops in the past decade, forcing staff cuts and program eliminations. Only four of the state’s public universities have seen enrollment numbers go up at least 1 percent over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Michigan GOP-controlled Legislature recently passed a higher education budget, signed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, that gave struggling schools a funding increase so meager that it amounts to a decrease ‒ an average 0.9 percent boost in state money, which is less than the 1.75 percent rate of inflation. Operational funding (money universities have direct control over how it is spent) is up just 0.5 percent.

Wayne State University, for instance, gets a half-percent hike in state funding. The Detroit school, serving 27,000 students, many of whom are minorities and low-income, is slated to receive less money in the 2019-20 budget year than it received in 2010-11, even before adjusting for inflation.

“And these are the good economic times,” said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, which represents the state’s public universities. “What happens when there is another recession?”


Michigan universities are facing what amounts to a perfect storm of economic, demographic and political factors. There are fewer Michigan high school graduates in part due to a declining birth rate, leaving colleges to fight over a smaller pool of potential in-state students. That pool is drained more because a vibrant economy is luring some high school grads to go straight into the job market rather than delay earning a paycheck through years of college. 

At the same time, there is growing public discontent with higher education,  based on rising costs, rising student debt and a belief among some that universities are liberal bastions hostile to conservative thought.

“These factors are real,” Davies wrote in a sobering letter to CMU staffers in February. “They are big. They are not going away.”

Gideon D’assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, did not return requests for comment on the higher-ed budgets. 

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told Bridge the governor “recognizes that a 1 percent increase for public universities and community colleges is not the kind of investment we need to make.” 

But she said the governor, in weighing budgets presented by the Legislature, “had to make tough decisions to keep our families and communities safe and to help Michiganders access critical services that they rely on every day.”

The budget Whitmer signed Sept. 30 gives Michigan’s public universities $1.47 billion for the 2019-20 budget year that began Oct. 1. In raw numbers, that’s 3.5 percent more than the 2010-11 appropriation. When adjusted for inflation, however, public university funding from the state has actually decreased 12 percent in nine years.

Before the new budget went into effect, Michigan was 44th in the nation in per-resident support for higher education, at $195.52, compared to a national average of $280.60, according to data compiled by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

In 2001, Michigan ranked 20th in the nation in per-resident support for higher education. Public college funding dropped soon after that as Michigan entered a one-state recession, and continued to not keep pace with inflation as the economy improved in the past decade.

Lackluster funding and lower enrollment are part of the same vicious economic circle, say experts in higher education economics. As state support goes down or doesn’t keep up with inflation, universities increase tuition to make up the difference in their budgets. That makes college more expensive for high school grads and their families weighing whether to incur four or more years of debt for a degree, or go straight into the job market.

The college-going rate for recent Michigan high school grads was the lowest in a decade in 2018. Just 6 in10 high school grads enrolled in some type of higher education within six months of graduation; the rate was 65 percent as recently as 2015.

“There's no question that there is an impact not only on the university funds, but on communities [where the universities are located],” said CMU’s Davies.

News is far better at the state’s two flagship schools, which grew between 2009 and 2018. 

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ‒ which accepts about  49 percent of freshmen students from out of state ‒ increased enrollment by 16 percent over this period. Michigan State enrollment rose 6 percent. Also growing were the University of Michigan-Dearborn (12 percent) and Oakland University (5 percent).

The remaining public universities saw student numbers stagnate or decline. CMU dropped 21 percent; Northern Michigan, 19 percent; Wayne State, 12 percent; and Lake Superior State, 14 percent.

So while Michigan and Michigan State continue to break application records,  “places that aren’t national names, at those places demographics shape their fortune,” said Brendan Cantwell, associate professor of educational administration at MSU.

Lower enrollment means fewer tuition dollars, but the cost of operating a university doesn’t necessarily go down. 

“They’re losing enrollment but their costs don’t change much from year to year,” Cantwell said. “It’s hard for them to change labor costs in the short term because their physical plant stays the same. As revenues decline because the number of students decline, the cost per student increases.”

The result: higher tuition and campus cutbacks, including fewer academic choices for students. At CMU, the number of bachelor degree programs contracted from 121 in 2013-14 to 103 four years later; master’s programs dwindled from 50 to 43. 

At Lake Superior State, bachelor degree offerings dropped 27 percent from the 2016 school year to the 2017 school year.   

The Carey Hall dormitory at CMU is closed this year to compensate for lower capacity and renovations, according to a student newspaper report on Davies’ remarks at a recent academic senate meeting. (A university spokesperson told Bridge no dorms have been closed because of low enrollment.) At another dorm, some four-person suites now house two or three students.

“Some faculty positions are not being filled and there’s more adjunct (professor) labor,” meaning part-time faculty who generally receive lower pay and benefits, according to Matt Johnson, associate professor of educational leadership and president-elect of the CMU faculty union. “My colleagues in other departments have seen their course [enrollment] caps go from 25 to 35. Class sizes are expanding.”

“At some point, cuts in funding (from declining enrollment and modest state support) aren’t going to be cutting fat but cutting bone,” said MSU’s Cantwell, “and the level of education students have access to is going to decline.”

The implications of fewer Michiganders attending college reach far beyond the state’s 15 university campuses. Fewer college grads typically means lower incomes,  the average U.S. adult with a bachelor’s degree earning about $1 million more over their lifetime than someone with a high school diploma. 

Michigan ranks 31st in the nation in the share of its population with a bachelor’s degree or higher; the state ranks 33rd in median household income.

The below-average education level of Michigan residents also can hobble efforts to attract businesses to the state. Detroit didn’t make the cut for a new Amazon headquarters in 2018 because of a shortage of talent.

In her first State of the State address as governor in February, Whitmer set a goal of 60 percent of working-age adults with a post high school credential or degree by 2030 to meet the expected demand for a more highly educated workforce. Currently, 44 percent have a post-high school certificate or degree.

Reaching that goal will be difficult in a political environment that sometimes harbors a distrust of higher ed, said Sen Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, the minority vice chairman on the appropriation subcommittee for universities and community colleges.

“I hear comments publicly and privately about how higher ed is a plot for liberal indoctrination,” Irwin said. “It comes from folks that feel conservative voices are not allowed on college campuses.”

In a recent national Pew poll, 59 percent of Republicans had a negative view of higher education, compared to 18 percent of Democrats. Both parties had positive views of college until 2016.

At a September journalism conference at the University of Michigan, Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., said there are good reasons many Americans have soured on taxpayer-support of higher education.

“People across the board are concerned about the high cost of higher ed,” McCluskey said. “And they combined cost with this feeling that the ivory tower was a citadel of progressivism and hostile to conservatism, and we’ve had enough. Why are we paying for these people who hate us?”

McCluskey argues that Michigan taxpayers should be giving less to public universities, rather than more. Universities could be less palatial and staffed leaner and still offer a good education, he says.

“Look, this is a beautiful campus,” McCluskey said of the University of Michigan. “How necessary is it to have this campus replicated around the state to provide the skills that people need to succeed in the economy? The state would be better off saving their resources for other priorities.”

“Everybody is kind of grumpy with higher education,” counters Cantwell of MSU. “They say, ‘Why does it cost so much? Why is it doing so little?’

“But everyone wants their children to have access to college when the time comes. Those are hard things to square.”

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Mon, 10/07/2019 - 6:47am

I am interested to see the data on which degrees have taken the biggest declines. I have four children. Two are engineers, one an educator, and the youngest finishing a business degree. All are well employed and received their education in Michigan.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 8:45am

When you have institutions sitting on substantial endowment funds, the poverty argument loses all effectiveness when more people are made aware of them (which explains why it is rarely if ever mentioned in articles such as this).

And if Mr. French claims that these institutions ARE NOT indoctrination centers, care to explain this?


I'd be more.than happy to post.several more examples...

David Waymire
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 10:45am

Here is what you find at that link...and I can't imagine anybody but white supremacists having a problem with it: "At the Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS), our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is not only about equal opportunity and fair treatment–it also means we do our job better every day. We are safer when we work together and we are more secure when we have an enriched appreciation of each other. We are only at our best when everyone in our community feels welcomed and safe."
I guess in your mind, conservatives now believe "We are only at our best when everyone in our community is paranoid and carrying a weapon?" And they are traumatized to information to the contrary?

Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 5:52pm

I see that you didn't go very far into those links, Mr. Waymire?

"● We identified methods to increase interest, diversity, and participation on the DPSS student advisory board. Input from university students and DPSS student hires have made it easier to get sufficient student feedback.

● We identified mechanisms to accurately measure the effectiveness of our communication on diversity, equity and inclusion.

● Numerous training sessions on generational diversity and unconscious bias were completed to increase understanding of the impact diversity, equity and inclusion has on our operations and service delivery. This will be continued and expanded into year four."


I'll bet that you've also missed this one as well buried deep in there.


So much focus on "inclusion". Not so much when it comes to personal responsibility or accountability? Yeah, people won't abuse that...ever.



Please forgive my skepticism at your value-signaling faux outrage.

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 12:43pm

I will never understand why "diversity" and "inclusion" is such a threat to conservatives. Also, there is plenty of responsibility and accountability at university. I know, I teach at one. I don't see how responsibility and inclusion are seen as opposites.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/09/2019 - 6:47am

Oh, that's an easy one, Yapete.

That's because "diversity" and "inclusion" only apply when it doesn't trigger anyone.




And believe me, that is a VERY short list.

This may sound like an obsolete idea, but there was a time when colleges were supposed to encourage an exchange of ideas. Not burn everything to the ground because the students and faculty lacked the emotional and intellectual maturity to deal with differing viewpoints. I cannot help but wonder what those same protestors would do once they enter the real world?

Oh, and speaking of being responsible in the real world, care to explain why U of M went through a significant amount of effort to conceal the identity of one of the "victims" in my previous post?


Mon, 10/07/2019 - 8:52am

Too many public universities for a state with zero (stagnant, at best) population growth.

Ren Farley
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 9:31am

The demographic trends are very clear. The fertility rate continues to decline and Michigan continues to lose in the exchange of population with other states.
And, compared to the rapidly growing states, Michigan attracts relatively few immigrants from abroad. Do we need 13 state supported colleges and universities? It is very difficult to close institution but it may be wise if the
governor and legislature considered reducing the number of colleges since
the enrollments at most of them are likely to steadily decline into the future.

David Waymire
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 10:46am

We still have more students attending universities than we did in 2000. I missed the conversation then about too many universities.

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 11:32am

Is it a wild guess that the student capacity of our u's has substantially increased since 2000? Without doing any research other than drive by viewing, It very much appears this way to me.

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/08/2019 - 10:57pm

But Matt, I thought you needed proof of anything people had to say.

Or is that only for people who don't agree with your opinion?

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/08/2019 - 10:55pm

Fertility rates have nothing to do with the decline of collage admissions. The population leaving the State does.

Do you know which universities and collages will be closed if your policies are put in place?

All the ones up here North of Mt Pleasant.

Why? Less enrollment.

Supply and demand.

Keep on keepin' on by making people from Northern and the rest of the State of Mi move out of State because they can't afford one of the bigger Universities or Community collages.

Keep telling us how much you really care about the Republicans up here in the Northlands!

Are you all comprehending this?


And then you have the audacity to blame dems for not funding education let alone higher education? Ha ha ha!!

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 9:33am

Declining enrollment is not just a Michigan demographic, it's happening across the country.
We have 15 public universities and not enough kids to fill them. Students are voting with their choice of where to attend. The schools with the largest enrollment declines should be candidates for closure.
We spend $2 billion a year on MDOC but only $1.47 billion on higher ed. Our funding priorities are obviously a problem.
As for conservatives, there's no cure for them, other than the voting booth. Hopefully their numbers are shrinking. Fair redistricting should mitigate this problem a bit in 2022.
Different people have different skills and not all these skills are enhanced by our 15 universities. Trade schooling is as important as any other type of education.
Life long learning doesn't get enough attention in Michigan. Skill demands change, more frequently today than ever. Our schools need to pay more attention to these changes and both offer and promote appropriate instruction for the new skill demands.
Michigan should consider the administrative model used by Wisconsin and some other states. Maybe a single board is a better solution than 15 administrative boards.

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 9:59am

Scenario modeling plays an important part in many business decisions. How to price, what to include, and what to delete are parts of many models. With all the professorial talent at the state schools, and the wealth of talent available in the classrooms, it would seem that it should be very easy to answer such questions as “will I be profitable if I drop this”, or “will my enrollment increase if I decrease tuition by this much”, or many other similar questions. Real life examples that are most beneficial when the students go looking for jobs in the real world. I’d support that much more than simply asking for more money.

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 11:56am

Is it a bad idea to consolidate available majors/depts to fewer schools? How many schools offering degrees in Drama, 14th century English lit. Russian History etc etc. do we or should we fund? This is what happens when kids find out their degree in exercise science prepares them for a career in washing and handing out towels at an gym @ $10 hr.. Is it a sign of bad things that kids lacking the interest or ability, skip the college thing and pursue careers they believe are a better fit or economic payoff? It should be amazing that this crying is taken seriously. Why do they think they should be exempt from this reality?

David Waymire
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 2:07pm

Matt, you should know that state data on the average college student with a bachelor's degree show he or she makes far more ...$50,000 on average ... five years out of college than someone with a certificate ($35,500) or associates ($39,700). And in today's world, where wellness is an important issue, where people spend a lot of time with personal trainers, where rehab is needed for knee, shoulder, etc. surgery...I doubt very seriously that someone with a degree in exercise science is washing towels. This isn't about universities "crying." It's about talented young middle class people, the kind who 20 years ago would have gone into college, being denied that opportunity by state tax cuts. The reality is that we have gone from providing $12,000 per student in state support in 2000 to $6,000 per student today -- so rich kids go to college, middle class kids get left behind.

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 4:09pm

I work at a public university. I know many exercise science and kinesiology graduates and none of them hand out towels at the gym. I don't know where you are getting that information. They may work per diem as personal trainers. Or for the corporate offices in professional sports. Or they are continuing their education in PT, OT, med school, nursing school. Or they are doing any number of related jobs. But they are not handing out towels and being subservient to wealthy gym members. Provide facts with such a damaging statement.

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 8:25am

Of course some ES majors go on to PT or other, the top few percentage points of their class, they're not the issue. BTW, they usually couldn't get into nursing BS programs which is why they're in ES etc in the first place! You tell where are those that don't get to go on to PT school? Yup, handing out towels at a gym (not just to wealthy members!).

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/08/2019 - 11:02pm

Matt only needs proof when someone who doesn't agree with his opinion has something to say.

Look for links and proof when reading his comment(ary).

Very few and very far between.

James Roberts
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 2:23pm

Appears to me there is simply a reallocation of students. Todays world is finally putting emphasis on what kind of education the student received and I am afraid the majority of the schools with declining enrollments are due to a recognition that a degree from them is perceived as second tier. Afraid the competitive business reality requires the best foot forward and the old mid-tier schools don't cut it, reputation wise. Just look at the charts, overall enrollment is down about 1 to 2% since '09, but the growth in the national reputation schools continues to be strong. Most students ,with the exception of commuters, if they could get accepted and if the schools had the capacity almost everyone would go to the growth schools if they could. A further case for consolidation.

Matthew K.
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 3:45pm

How about instead of asking for more from the taxpayers they stop wasting taxpayer’s money and cut the pork out of the budget. College has become a joke, going to college use to be the hallmark moment for the brightest and best to expand and hone their knowledge. They used to teach and help young minds develop into strong independent thinkers and encourage intellectual debate. Now we see indoctrination from leftist professors and shut down of free speech and debate over the possibility of someone’s feelings getting hurt. Until colleges start acting like Colleges again, they deserve to be treated for what they really are oversized daycares.

Tom Downs
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 6:38pm

Pork? They’ve been cutting pork since Regan invented welfare queens as an excuse to cut taxes. Nearly 40 years of cutting, outsourcing, and accounting tricks have taken us from a top ten state to a bottom ten state. If kids can’t afford an education today it’s because the state and federal governments have cut subsidies and transferred the cost to their tuition. You got your tax cuts at the expense of our kids education, roads and infrastructure. But we do have lots of empty expensive prisons.... thank you GOP.

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 9:08am

It's not just about what the institutions are or aren't spending money on, "wasting" as you put it, of their own accord. A part of what is going on is in an attempt to lure students from the shrinking pool of available students. Schools now compete on what food establishments they have on campus, how new their library is, whether they have upgraded their dorm rooms to be more like upscale apartments, etc. Schools that don't compare favorably on the curb appeal are finding themselves out of consideration. So while not keeping up appearances hurts, spending that money only keeps those schools "even" in the race - and that means still fewer dollars toward actual education, increased tuition and fees on students, fewer staff, and more reliance on lower-ranked teaching staff rather than full-time faculty.

I'm not saying our Higher Education institutions are completely blameless here, just pointing out that attracting and retaining students is a big driver in current spending.

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 12:49pm

It is always easy to take the Fox news talking points and not actually knowing what's done at colleges. These issues you mention are click-bait for conservative websites, but have little connection what colleges do on a daily basis. I teach in the science/engineering area, and we do not indoctrinate anybody. We have great students who are getting an excellent education and are going on to good jobs (in Michigan!).

T. R.
Mon, 10/07/2019 - 9:33pm

In my hometown, in the last 15 years, almost all of the elementary schools have closed (many have become churches interestingly) as the baby-boomers moved on. I think what we are seeing is the wave finally hitting colleges and universities. Our education system was built for a post-war boom and it has now passed in my opinion. In the 1950's we catered to first-generation veterans attending college. At MSU Hannah built it on serving veterans and their children, likewise for the other colleges. We now have too many institutions and not enough students. The cost of higher ed has become absurd as too many students accumulate huge debts. Our "state funded" colleges are now "state assisted" as best. Time to downsize and specialize as we have too many at the table for smaller slices of the pie.

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 8:17pm

My son was with the military and needed to get a masters degree during a 2 year stay in Michigan. He went for the CMU Masters of Science in Administration at night in Troy. He was appalled at the quality of the students and lack of rigor of the classes. Instead of a statistics class, that most serious majors require as an undergrad, there was a requirement for "statistics awareness". This was well named as during the review for the final exam a lengthy discussion took place about the meaning of the <,> and equal signs. Basically the class was at the middle school math level. He had similar experiences in many other classes. CMU has become a degree mill of the worse kind.

Some other points:
1) It appears the quality Michigan Universities are growing and the crappy ones, like CMU, are shrinking so the market is speaking.
2) If state funding is level and enrollment is declining then state funding per person is going up.
3) I worked as a salary employee in the auto industry and saw 30-40% decline in vehicle sales from say 1995 to 2008, and a persistent decline of about 25%. The response was a 30% decline in salaried employees and a lot of office buildings torn down, sold or mothballed. Get on with it.

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 2:14pm

I'm not sure you can compare classes at CMU's Troy campus with the university as a whole. Certain programs are certainly more rigorous than others. I wouldn't recommend entrepreneurship at CMU, because in my opinion it's mostly for students who cannot get accepted into the business school. It has low admission requirements.

Undergrad business students at CMU are fairly successful. I had to take two statistics classes and calculus to get a BSBA at CMU. I can't speak for the graduate programs. I also can't speak for what goes on in Troy.

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 8:53am

The demographics are working against having 15 public universities in the state but trying to close one or two would not be easy due to the political fallout and public perception of giving up on education. It would present a very bad image for Michigan worldwide to do this so I doubt it would happen.

Richard M
Tue, 09/01/2020 - 11:03am

Speaking as a professor, we probably have at least twice as many universities as we need. We teach evolution in universities. I've taught it myself. As a basic principle, the universities that are not economically fit to survive should not survive. It is a mistake to use limited public funds to keep them going. And let's be truthful, the only reason for making that mistake is political patronage. Let the weak die a natural death and strong survive. If its my university, fine. I do other things for a living.