First appeared in Detroit Free Press
After half a century of observing discussions about public policy in this state, what I find amazing is not that people have different views — it's that they so often seem to be living in different universes.
Take Michigan universities. Two studies in Bridge, the Center for Michigan's online magazine, showed that tuition at Michigan public colleges is higher than for nearly every comparable school around the country.
Not surprisingly, student debt in our state has ballooned to $1.8 billion for last year alone. Talk to university officials, and they have no doubt why this is so: They say it's the result of our governors and legislatures choosing — for decades — to shortchange higher education.
The less state support, the argument goes, the higher schools have to push tuition.There is, indeed, evidence for this: In the 1970s, the state covered around three-quarters of total university costs; today, the numbers are reversed. Not surprisingly, tuition has soared.Consequently, it's not unreasonable to conclude that Michigan has imposed a stiff "college use tax" on hundreds of thousands of Michigan students and their families.
But the folks in the current legislature, particularly the House of Representatives, sharply disagree. They think the universities are constantly whining for more state money while asserting that their constitutional autonomy immunizes them from legislative attempts to cut costs, boost productivity and enforce graduation standards.
Rep. Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee on Higher Education, is an outspoken critic of university spending practices. In an interview with Bridge's Ron French, Genetski talked about whether Michigan has made a conscious policy choice to have individual families shoulder more and more of the cost of an education."We're not saying we don't care about higher education. … But there are so many places we can cut, and higher education happens to be one of those. It happens also to be one where, as soon as you cut it, (universities) can turn around and, instead of looking inward for legitimate cuts, increase tuition. … Parents tell me universities don't make a strong effort to make cuts. Taxpayers deserve better."
While university and legislative officials talk at each other, rather than with each other, this much is clear: Michigan's damaging and unsustainable higher education policies are giving nearly everybody the shaft.
Students and their families are paying way above national market price for college degrees at Michigan universities. The cost alone is enough to simply scare many off, or price them out of the college market — in this state. Many simply leave the state to get cheaper degrees elsewhere; few come back.
College graduates are burdened by crushing debt at high interest rates. Families in hock to student loan outfits aren't going to buy as many cars, houses or goods. Student debt last year far exceeds the $1.2 billion in total state support for higher education. Michigan's economy, which depends crucially on lots of college-educated folks in the work force, is suffering.
Many new, high-tech start-ups depend on inventions from university labs migrating into business. Starved universities are unlikely to be robust innovators. Michigan employers are crying out for better trained, more skilled workers — workers with college degrees.
Fewer Michigan kids going to college means fewer productive workers for Michigan businesses, and that means our economy doesn't grow as fast as it could.
The cumulative result of years of decisions at the State Capitol is a huge divide between Michigan and the rest of America. Just to reach the middle of the pack in per-capita spending on universities, Michigan would need to increase higher education funding by 56 percent; to reach the top 10, the state would need to almost double the $1.26 billion it now spends on universities.
That could mean more taxes (reaching the top 10 in per-capita funding would mean an extra $154 per Michigan resident). It could mean reordering priorities (The $1.7 billion business tax cut passed in 2011 far exceeds the current higher education budget).
"At the end of the day, we still have one of the finest sets of universities in the country," said Central Michigan University President George Ross. "It's a jewel. And we have to protect the jewel."
Protecting higher education is cheaper than you might think. Consider this: Cutting $1,000 from the annual cost of attending Michigan's public universities for every full-time, in-state student, would cost each state resident $23, according to the House Fiscal Agency's Kyle Jen.
That's 44 cents a week.
If you double that - with every resident paying roughly the price of a candy bar more weekly toward higher education - students could graduate with a bachelor's degree with $8,000 less debt than they have now.
The failure to communicate on solutions and the joint hostility that we've seen has only hurt everybody, and hurt Michigan's future most of all.We can certainly do better.
Here's a suggested starting point: University officials and legislators need to sit down - together with representatives of the business community, economists and the governor's office - and start talking candidly about higher education and what it means for Michigan's future prosperity.
One possible outcome: agreement on a set of outcome-based performance standards (sort of an 'education dashboard')for universities, one that could be used to help determine state support.
Another suggestion: The state and the schools could hammer out an agreement under which Lansing pledges to fund Michigan universities at levels comparable to the top-10 states in the nation, if they meet or exceed a set of agreed-on performance standards.
For years, everybody's paid lip service to the assertion that our universities are among our state's "crown jewels." And for years, we've been leading the nation in tarnishing the diamonds.For all of our futures, we really need to stop.