U-M’s Schlissel: ‘Our children will suffer’ because of how we treat higher education today

Mark Schlissel

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel worries about the long-term financial viability of some of the state’s public universities because of low state funding. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

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. 

Related: The University of Michigan invested big in Detroit. Now come the evictions.

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.

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Fri, 07/12/2019 - 8:46am

Same guy has a football coach that throws kids out of school not for any classroom actions but for how they play a game. What a farce. It's still a great school but so me of the priorities are a complete fraud. No wonder they named the business school after one of the biggest slumlords and tax cheat.

Disgruntled taxpayer
Fri, 07/12/2019 - 9:33am

Quit whining, Schlissel. Shared revenue funds for Michigan's municipalities are running even farther behind and our cities, villages, and townships, particularly the rural ones, need the money far more than Big U does. I'm a UM grad and I'm disgusted by you. Raise your football ticket prices if you're that down and out.

Ken Mitton (PhD...
Fri, 07/12/2019 - 10:31am

President Mark Schlissel is correct to warn about the divestment in Michigan's post secondary education. Some additional points for Michigan Parents and Students: The funds that Michigan gives to our public universities for each attending student is not the same. The big older universities like Wayne St, UMich and MSU and northern universities get $6,000 to over $8,000 appropriations per student, while Oakland County's university (OU) gets the least <$3,000 per student. (data found here at : www.senate.michigan.gov/sfa/Publications/HiEdApprops/HiEdApprops_MostRec...)
Also, Michigan Families need to be informed that the cost of education has only risen with the total US accumulated inflation since the early 80s when $1,200 was total tuition for the year. That should mean that tuition would be <$5,000 per year, however; in the 80s our State provided about 70% of education costs, the other 30% was our tuition ($1,200). But in 2019, the State now provides about 20% or less of the education costs, and the lion's share is now the student's...tuition. Thus $12-15,000 per year. This cannot be wise to prepare our State to compete on a future National and World stage.

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 2:25pm

Who in their right mind wants to pay for the liberal indoctrination? I'd never let my kids attend 90% of the colleges out there.

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 2:40pm

Send them to Hillsdale then, and save your blathering

Sun, 07/14/2019 - 11:44pm

It seems you can only come up with one name in Michigan, doesn't that suggest their is imbalance? Does it raise concerns when the only school you can offer for an other than 'liberal' view is private? What state school would you hold up as having even some balance in the campus/classroom social/political conversations?
President Schlissel seemed to be concerned with a diminishing public confidence in the colleges could it be the issue of a social bias in the Michigan universities, and that may be feeding the reduced funding for those schools?
You may like the social bias in the classrooms, the dampening of a diversity of social views on campuses, but what if that discourages taxpayers supporting those schools? Which is more important to you the social/political attitudes on campuses or financial support and expanding enrollment?

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:27pm

Maybe, just maybe, there's little representation of Conservative thought in higher education because modern Conservatism is largely based upon lies and gross misrepresentations of reality, in addition to being ideologically incoherent. The only through-line tying the various Conservative movements together over the last two hundred years has been a resistance to the economic/social liberation of previously disenfranchised groups. So no, I have no issue with Conservative thought being excluded from unversities, because it's inherently regressive and anti-emancipatory

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 6:04pm

You have completely taken me by surprised, that you would deny people freedom of expression, that you seem to believe that there are ideas that people [students and professors] must be protected from and not be allowed to hear on their campuses.

I have no idea what 'Conservative' thought you are referencing, could you share a link so I can see what has you so concerned?

Ann Farnell
Fri, 07/12/2019 - 8:38pm

Todd! This is a public forum but your comments say more about you than the topic. Is that the best you can do? Calling Detroit a toilet? Assuming that you know the political ideologies of 90% of Michigan’s colleges! Really?

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 9:28am

While I share your concern about the one sided presentation in higher education, how will that change if conservative people fail to send their kids into the fire to challenge that thinking?

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 9:28am

While I share your concern about the one sided presentation in higher education, how will that change if conservative people fail to send their kids into the fire to challenge that thinking?

Kevin Grand
Fri, 07/12/2019 - 6:42pm

"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?

What is in their best interest?!?

When you have overall student debt, in just the US alone, hovering around $1.5-trillion (and growing), when you have students who cannot turn their college degree into something marketable and skip the country hoping that no one will bother collecting on that ever-growing interest (gender studies, post-colonialism studies, ethnic studies, etc. ≠ $$$) and when employers are no longer requiring applicants to have a college degree (even going so far as to question their value in the first place), institutions like U of M obviously haven't wised up to whose "best interest" is more important.





When U of M's business model eventually collapses in on itself, I'm sure they will finally understand at that point.

Janell T
Sun, 07/14/2019 - 12:39am

I don't respond to things I see online often, but this is a lot more important than most people seem to realize.

Look at the numbers presented in the article and in the comments. The business model for US universities, especially in states like Michigan has fundamentally changed from what it was a generation ago. 25 years ago, the majority of the costs of running a university were covered by public sources. As a society, we have effectively de-funded education, and now only about 10-15% of the cost of operating a public university is covered by public sources. That means that tuition has had to rise in order to continue to operate at a base case - not even factoring in growth. That means the cost of an education is primarily on the student and their families - even though society as a whole benefits from an education population. Since most students and their families don't have the cost of tuition and housing saved, they take out loans. Wa La: student debt crisis.

Public support for universities is one factor that helped to make us (arguably) the greatest nation of Earth. It is the development (research) and conveyance (teaching) of knowledge that is fundamental purpose of universities; to teach people to think, not to be vocational job training centers. The concerns raised for the future is the lack of that support, or even understanding what role universities play in our greatness. Look at how education is respected now in Europe and Asia (and invested in), and how it is disrespected here (disinvestment)...If things keep going this way, where will we be in 20 years?

I doubt things will get better until our politicians start acting like statesmen (women) again, and stop being so partisan. They need to remember they are Americans, first and foremost, and Libs/Dems or Trumpettes second.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 07/17/2019 - 6:23am

Care to address how universities survived before public sources of revenue were made available to them?

Care to address how America managed to innovate and grow early in the last century? I fail to recall the alma mater of people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Orville or Wilbur Wright?

Janell T
Tue, 07/23/2019 - 4:22pm

Survived or thrived?
Far fewer schools existed, far fewer people were educated, and the general population certainly didn't live as well as they do today, by any measure. It was an era of a few elites, and everyone else. If we choose not to educate people, we are going to have a much different future.

I'm pretty sure the University of Michigan-Dearborn's campus is on the Henry Ford Estate. Did he leave it for a university because he didn't believe in education? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Kevin Grand
Sun, 07/28/2019 - 8:18am

If "we" choose to educate people???

Perhaps if you had actually read my comment, you would've realized that you've just proven my argument (and those were just SOME examples). If people were not as "educated" as you claim they should be, care to explain how America grew from literally coast to coast? I'll enjoy hearing from you how the technology and infrastructure was developed to pull off such a feat. Not exactly an easy task for those ignorant dullards.

Colleges & Universities are arrogantly presuming that they are the ONLY source of an education here in America today. When major corporations are eschewing college education as a hiring requirement, that right there should tell you about the ever-deepening hole that they are digging for themselves.

OABTW, Henry Ford DID believe in education. He just didn't insist that others pay for it. I gather that this is an anathema to you, but it is another problem with the business model employed by colleges & universities.


Ralph Pasola
Fri, 07/12/2019 - 8:03pm

Eastern Michigan University has the Education First Opportunity Scholarship. It's combined with a student’s Pell Grant. EMU 's program provides for full tuition coverage. No out of pocket funds are required to pay for credit hours. To be eligible, students must have a 3.0 GPA and minimum ACT composite of 20.

Wayne O'Brien
Sat, 07/13/2019 - 10:37am

Several main points: (1) Enrollment numbers are dropping; fewer students, lower birthrate (2) Michigan educates a smaller fraction of college age folks (3) Educating costs are no longer covered by the state to the degree they once were (4) Common goods require folks to pay for them (5) Public confidence in higher ed diminishes (5) Concerns that Michigan will no longer be seen as a global leader....competitive edge diminishing; this adumbrated list of Michigan's current cultural/economic/political/educational characteristics do not seem to be in wide dispute. If this is a list of problems, few seem to consider them as such. If this is a list of accepted realities, few step forward to challenge the perceptions. If this is a list of concerns, few express that they are troubled. If this is a list of issues that ought to change, observed complacency suggests state-wide common tacit-acceptance of them. Surrounded by beautiful Great Lakes of fresh water, the wider Michigan population may be quietly expressing desire for a back seat view of an increasingly back-water state. How do "We the People" of Michigan view our state, our options and our future? For many Michigan folks, the status quo may be sufficient. Motivation, drive, aspirations----may, for many Michigan folks, exist now only in their rear-view mirrors.

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 10:39am

The President need not worry, he can turn U/M into a slum lord and make much more money.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Sat, 07/13/2019 - 12:49pm

Nobody trusts government or public institutions anymore to do the right thing with ALL of the taxpayer money they receive. So no, people don't want to pay for anything anymore. Good luck earning our trust back!

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 8:59pm

After reading the comments I am struck by the inability of any commentator to articulate the real problem here in Michigan. I believe our state is a true reflection of the rest of the country. Nobody try's seeking common ground for a common good no matter what the topic is. I can actually remember when statesmen existed. In today's society apparently it is a grievous insult to try to work toward a common good no matter what it may be. The lack of funding on a number of projects and issues is the least of our problems.

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 10:02pm

“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.”

Is he admitting that he runs an inefficient bureaucracy? And that’s just the way it is? Take a look at campus. There are more cranes than parking spots. The problem is universities have become “take in as much money as you can” and after you’ve paid inflated administrators salaries then find something to spend it on. Not cut tuition. The Union is shut down so the building can be gutted. Because the buildings are too “old fashioned” to attract today’s students. That need fancy dining halls and facilities that make 5 star hotels look cheap. Then wonder why their tuition is so high. It stopped being about classrooms and education and turned to keeping up with the Jones a while ago.

Most of us can handle a budget. If he thinks not spending beyond your means and cutting extravaganza is financial management tricks he probably isn’t qualified to do his job. Or more accurately, found the industry where you don’t have to worry about that; government & education.

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 10:51pm

I graduated as an out of state student in 1979. My tuition,room and board was under $10,000 a year. I would never spend $ 50000 +a year for a degree at Michigan now. Please try and justify a 400 % increase in cost. You can't. The reason for it? The federal government subsidization of college education Schlissel is complaining about more state subsidization but the legislature is not stupid. The school has the ninth largest endowment of nearly $11 billion dollars. No crocodile tears for my alma mater.

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:12am

The disappointment is how President Schlissel doesn't even allude to how he and the University are considering change to address his concerns.
If loss of public confidence and support and the potential for its continued decline and all that entails is what keeps him 'up at night' why wouldn't he take this opportunity to indicate they are reaching out to the public to learn what is contributing to the problem and trend? The President's comments feeds the impression of an aloofness, a detachment from Michigan residents.
Maybe it is time that President Schlissel and his peers realize it is time to start engaging the public on their value to the whole of the state not just to their students, talking about their programs and public engagement, how the research has an impact and how those doing the work are helping to apply what they learn in Michigan.
I learned a long time ago, we don't just sell products and services, we need to sell ideas and how to apply those ideas no matter how sophisticate we may want to believe they are. We no longer live in a world where academia has their intellectual mote, much of those in Michigan are more engaged and dropping old social deference based on job, education, position, they are using their intellect to replace those old views, so if the President ignores this opportunity he should be prepared for his night time concerns to continue on this path.

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 1:43pm

Tuition was affordable when I went to college, even at U of M. One could work a summer and save enough money for a year in college. That’s impossible now. How do you justify the catapulting costs of college-up 400% under Granholm alone, and hasn’t stopped since! It’s not in keeping with Federal or State cuts in funding at all, (Texas ‘lost’ 26%, yet raised tuition 200%!) nor with inflation and cost of living. It’s become a massively profiting venture. Combine the high costs with the high interest rates on student loans (more than double that if most mortgages!)and ridiculous cost of books, no wonder people are screaming ‘dismiss student loans’-SHAME on the colleges.

Ben W. Washburn
Sun, 07/21/2019 - 1:46am

I came to UofM in 1959, just out of the Air Force, partly funded by the GI Bill, but as a non-resident. That was not enough. I dropped out my second semester to establish residency, and worked at 4 different part-time jobs to make up the difference. I came because UofM had given me more credit for my previous academic work (from U of Ky Agriculture, U of Omaha, U of Maryland, Johanne Goethe, Frankfurt, Germany, than any of the other 9 universities which had also accepted me, including Columbia, UCLA, Berkeley, Cornell, Iowa, Minnesota, etc. While I dropped out for that second semester, I also informally audited some 30 hours of academic classes, in which the professors were all amazed and welcoming that I was doing this work without any chance of credit. I did this in part because during my first semester, I had found myself often academically out-gunned by much younger Jewish students from New York City high schools. It is to the great credit of UofM that during the 1920s and 30s, that it accepted Jewish students when the Ivy League schools were shunned them. If you wonder why UofM has such a national following in sports, it all relates back to their intolerance way back then against discrimination.
Anyhow, bottom line here: There is much to which we should admire about UofM. But, that does not mean that there are not a lot of folks who would sponge off of that admiration, and drive costs beyond what they should need to be. I would like to see comparisons across the board as to how UofM's non-academic costs compare with other comparable institutions.