Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

December 19, 2013

Phil Power: Lansing's attitude toward higher ed troubling

There’s no doubt about one thing: Michigan needs a better educated work force, more now than ever.

Yet one of the abiding mysteries of the past dozen years is the strange reluctance of our state’s leaders to invest in our future by investing in our citizens’ brainpower at colleges and universities.

“Reluctance,” in fact, isn’t the right term. Thinly veiled hostility is more like it. That’s a puzzle, because on the surface it looks like shortchanging higher education is cutting off our nose to spite our face.

After all, Michigan employers say they’ve got jobs for 70,000 people — if only they could find applicants with the proper skills.

Statistics compiled by the House Fiscal Agency showed that unemployment for high school grads without a college degree is 10.6 percent, compared to 4.1 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Indeed, last week, the House Fiscal Agency — a nonpartisan body — issued a report concluding that students at Michigan universities could blame state politicians for something like 60 percent of the college tuition increases over the past 13 years.

That’s because, as the report shows, the lawmakers have cut appropriations by a total of $325 million since 200. That‘s a 40 percent reduction when adjusted for inflation.

That’s almost the biggest decline in support for higher ed in the nation. Indeed, according to a State Higher Education Executive officers report, Michigan is outranked only by Rhode Island and New Mexico in cutting higher education budgets.

When I first joined the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents in 1987, state support represented around 75 percent of total revenue; tuition and fees accounted for around a quarter. Today, it’s exactly the reverse.

Talking with Lansing insiders about Michigan universities reveals a wide range of views, some very critical of higher ed; some supportive. One well-connected insider put it in a nutshell: “Today’s Lansing environment is terrible for universities.”

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