Mark Schlissel just celebrated his fifth anniversary as president of the University of Michigan. In a wide-ranging interview with Bridge, Schlissel was both optimistic about his own school’s future, and concerned about what lies ahead for higher education in general, in Michigan and the United States. Schlissel said he is frustrated with the level of state funding to Michigan’s public universities, and worries about the long-term impact on institutions.
“Nobody wants to pay for things,” Schlissel said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: Enrollment is up at the University of Michigan, but is dropping at many other public universities in the state. Michigan’s birth rate is dropping and we have fewer high school graduates every year. Can Michigan still support 15 public universities?
Schlissel: Enrollment is going down, but we're still educating a smaller fraction of our college-age students than states that are successful. So I don't think the problem is excess capacity. I think the problem is that higher education, because of the lack of public support, has become more and more the burden of students and their families.
And people that are making economic decisions that I think are short-sighted. They're saying, ‘Look, I can either earn $25,000 a year, or I can go to school and pay $25,000 a year.’ In the short term, which would you rather do? [But] in the long term which is in your best interest?
It used to be the public would come together around common goods, things that, you know, no individual benefits from, but we all benefit from collectively if we all chip in. We’ve gotten away from that notion. So it's a question of making investments for the future. And I think we [Michigan] are failing to do that.
Bridge: Should the state offer more financial aid to encourage high school grads to enroll in college?
Schlissel: I've tried a new argument this year with the Legislature, and it hasn't been any more successful [than past arguments]. The argument is, rather than necessarily giving more money to the universities, perhaps it would be more popular if we gave the money to the students. Based on need, we’ll give you a subsidy, a scholarship. If you're a student at a certain [income] level, we’ll provide you with X number of thousands of dollars, and you spend it at the school that you think is going to give you the best education.
And that way, instead of being concerned about having too many students that can't pay, the public universities compete for these students, which is a wonderful thing. And the kids will vote with their feet where they think they're going to get the best value for this money.
The state of California does this. It's basically pegged to the full tuition at the public universities in the state. It adds up to about $11,000 or $12,000 a year and it's based on academic performance and financial need. We [the state of Michigan] are, as in many things, near the bottom of all the states in direct-to-student financial aid. We’re 47th in the country in the amount of [college aid] per capita.
The governor initially actually was talking about this, but it hasn't gotten traction.
Bridge: You don’t hide your frustration with how Michigan funds higher education. What’s your pitch to the Legislature and the governor as to why the state should provide more money to public universities?
Schlissel: We're getting roughly the same number of dollars without any inflation adjustment that we got 20 years ago. But the university is 20 percent bigger. And the aggregate inflation over the last 20 years has been about 50 percent. So consistently through the decades, public higher ed has been starved. We’re not alone. Other states have been similarly short-sighted in their approach to the role of education in the future economic success of the state.
And it's not just education. Look at how we’re paralyzed now in a discussion over the roads. It's absolutely clear from multiple independent sources how much it's going to cost to get our roads back to the condition that they should be and then to keep them that way. The problem is quite similar to the problem with higher ed: Nobody wants to pay for things. They think that there's a magic way of squeezing efficiency out of bureaucracies, of moving money around using clever financial management tricks, and then nobody has to pay. And obviously, that's silly.
Bridge: There’s a push in Michigan to promote careers that don’t require a college degree – high-paying jobs that maybe only require some post-high school training. What do you say to people who argue that we put too much emphasis on college?
Schlissel: Not everybody needs to have a four-year college education. But it's clear from multiple examples that, on average, the more educated a person is, the more economically successful they can be. And the more successful they are personally, the greater they add to the wealth of the state where they live. Our state is 30th in per capita income and we're 35th in educational attainment. The states that are in the top 10 in one of those areas are top 10 in both.
Bridge: U-M’s Go Blue Guarantee offers free tuition to in-state students from families earning under $65,000 a year – basically half the state. That’s a great public service, but it’s also something that most other public universities can’t do because they don’t have the endowment to cover it.
Schlissel: We are overwhelmed with applications from incredibly talented people … but I really worry about the financial viability of many of the other Publics in the state. Places like Saginaw [Valley State University] and Eastern [Michigan University] and Western [Michigan University] and Northern [Michigan University] don't have the financial wherewithal without help from the state to be able to make sure that kids from their communities can afford college. When the state's not providing a share or subsidy that is sufficient, then education more and more becomes the privilege of the wealthy.
Bridge: What keeps you up at night?
Schlissel: My middle-of-the-night anxiety is that the public's confidence in higher education seems to be diminishing. For a long time, there's sort of been a bargain between the public and research universities: We do research, we do advanced education. And in return, the public gives us resources, and then the freedom to explore and discover.
And I think the societal respect for the success of that enterprise seems to be diminishing. And I do worry that a decade from now, rather than recovering, support will continue to decrease and the challenges in terms of attracting talent from around the world will continue to go in the wrong direction [and] that we will no longer be the global leader in higher education. And that we’ll suffer and our children will suffer because of it.