Funding Higher Education is Vital for Michigan's Future

Funding Higher Education is Vital for Michigan's Future
March 13, 2010

By Thomas J. Haas

In recent days, there has been much in The Press, on news and editorial pages, about public higher education, with some writers questioning the state’s obligation to make it available to Michigan’s citizens. There is no doubt about this obligation because it is spelled out in Article VIII of the Michigan Constitution. The words are unambiguous: “The legislature shall appropriate moneys to maintain. ... the state’s public universities. Those words follow Section 1 that confirms for our citizens the importance of education, “the means of which shall forever be encouraged.”

“Shall appropriate” and “forever.” That is what our constitution says about higher education.

For generations, going back to the 1700s, the citizens of our peninsulas recognized that this compact leads to mutual gain, understanding that an educated population results in economic vitality. Look to the states that surround us. Those with higher numbers of college graduates are more prosperous than Michigan.

The facts are clear. The way out of our economic trouble is to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs and inventors and keep them in Michigan. Henry Ford, Billy Durant, Walter Chrysler, Anna Bissell, Dan Gerber, Fred Meijer, Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos are just a few of the men and women whose business success, and their willingness to stay here, made Michigan prosperous. No business leader wants to locate a company in a state that doesn’t offer stable educational opportunity. I have heard for years from Lansing that education is the key to Michigan’s future. I could not agree more. However, the actions from Lansing do not align with this rhetoric when what we see is a persistent erosion of state support.

Let me also set the record straight about my recent testimony to the State Senate. I was not asking for more money for Grand Valley (although our students surely deserve it). Rather, I was asking for a rational and sustainable funding model that will enable our public colleges and universities to admit additional Michigan residents to the advanced study that is required of today’s workforce.

The state’s public universities take seriously the constitutional requirement that we account to the public for our spending. When adjusted for inflation, the cost to run our state’s universities about matches the rise in the consumer price index. What has changed most, however, is who pays the bill. Over the last decade, the state has steadily shifted university operating costs from taxpayers to students. More than any other factor, this is what has caused tuition to rise.

At Grand Valley, as a result of an efficient, effective and committed faculty and staff, our cost of operation per student is about $2,000 a year below the median for public universities. With this differential, we are saving our 24,400 students more than $44 million annually, enabling Grand Valley to offer them lower tuition and generous financial aid. More on this can be seen in our Accountability Report, www.gvsu.edu/accountability.

We have doubled the number of graduates in the past 10 years while increasing enrollment by around 40 percent. Of our most recent class, 96 percent are employed or in graduate school. Of those employed, 94 percent are living in Michigan and working in health care, engineering, business, education and other high demand fields. This is a return worthy of continued taxpayer investment, exactly as our constitutional framers envisioned.

Many members of the state Legislature attended one of Michigan’s public universities. This they were able to do because their parents and grandparents created and sustained the best collection of public universities in the United States. For 173 years, our state has made higher education an important priority. The question our elected leaders face today is whether they will make it 174. The next generation is counting on them to decide wisely.

Thomas J. Haas is president of Grand Valley State University and chairman of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.







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