Guest column: Lawmakers lose way on higher education

By Thomas Haas/Grand Valley State University

Bridge Magazine has performed an important public service by pointing out the state of Michigan’s near-wholesale abandonment of support for public higher education.

For most of the 20th century, Michigan was a Top 10 state in support of the spectacular universities its citizens built and nurtured. Today, we are a Bottom 10 state. This reversal is wrong-headed public policy, not least for students who -- as Bridge reported -- pay a greater share of their education than do students in nearly every other state.

It is also self-defeating for everyone in Michigan because it sends the signal that higher education is not a priority, when just the opposite is true: The most prosperous states are those with the most college graduates. A college diploma, and the knowledge and abilities it represents, benefits the entire state. Our policy-makers used to see higher education as a public good. Today, few seem to. It’s no wonder students and their families are perplexed.

I understand that state tax revenues have fallen and that difficult choices have to be made. At Grand Valley State University, we’ve made tough choices, too. For those who think that we just pass along all of the state’s reductions to students, let me point out a few things we’ve done to balance our budget:

* We have aggressively controlled costs. Adjusted for inflation, our administrative expense per student has risen less than $25 in the last 10 years.

* We reduced spending by $7 million in each of the last two years, even as state aid to our university was cut by more than $6 million

* We froze salaries, renegotiated collective bargaining agreements and adopted health insurance reforms that save millions every year.

* We successfully asked the generous communities that host our campuses to help build additional classrooms that our students need, but which the state can’t presently afford to construct.

Grand Valley’s finances have been further stressed by growing enrollment -- nearly 50 percent in the past 10 years -- and by expensive new academic programs, primarily in the health professions, none of which the state has paid for. In short, Grand Valley is publicly owned, but no longer publicly financed: just 17 percent of our funding comes from taxes.

It has fallen to Grand Valley alone to shoulder the costs of inflation, additional enrollment and the new programs so important to Michigan’s job providers -- and to our graduates, nearly all of whom stay in Michigan. Creating great talent is in everyone’s interest. It is time for the state to again be a major partner in this critical public service.

In just the last few days, employment experts reported to the Legislature that the strongest job growth in Michigan is in high-wage industries. Management, computer systems, research and development, health care and engineering have had the most growth. Demand in these professions continues to be high and nearly all of them require a college degree.

Need I say more?

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John Q. Public
Thu, 01/19/2012 - 12:16pm
We could generate many more degree holders in the fields with high job demand, at a far lower cost, if colleges granted degrees for completing the 30-60 credits necessary to be entry-level proficient in the various fields. That, instead of requiring 120 semester hours that are two-thirds revenue generation and little more.
David Waymire
Wed, 01/25/2012 - 6:03pm
John: That assumes companies would accept those kinds of credentials, and I see no evidence of that. The companies choose the screens they do. If they found that the screens were too difficult, or if they could find qualified people with the half-degree you endorse, I assume they would be advertising for them. Nobody is holding a gun to a company's head and saying "you can only hire college grads." They have obviously found value in someone with the full sheepskin.