July 23, 2011/Lansing State Journal
A state lawmaker accused Michigan State University officials of "getting cute with the definition of 'academic year' " to slip in a larger tuition increase than allowed by the state appropriations bill. At stake is an $18.3 million tuition restraint payment.
One could more correctly argue that lawmakers used sloppy language in their bill. Fortunately, lawmakers also gave Budget Director John Nixon the authority to decide whether a university is complying with tuition restraint guidelines. Now he must be the rational voice to end this silly sideshow.
Here's the back story.
The budget passed on June 21 appropriates $222.8 million to MSU for operations and an additional $18.3 million if it complies with "tuition restraint."
Universities get the extra money if their 2011-12 tuition increase is not greater than "the calculated average of annual statewide changes in tuition and fee rates for academic years 2006-2007 through 2010-2011, as determined by the state budget director." Specific language, isn't it? The calculation put the cutoff at 7.1 percent.
The appropriations bill goes on to say: " 'Tuition and fee rate' means the average of rates for all undergraduate classes, based on the highest board-authorized rate for any semester during the academic year." The provision never defines "academic year." The next provision: "The state budget director shall have the sole authority to determine if a public university has met the requirements."
MSU passed a 6.9 percent increase for 2011-12, a percentage based on its summer 2011 rate. In fall 2010 and winter 2011, the school would have charged the same rate but instead used federal aid to roll back increases it already had approved.
When the House Fiscal Agency did an annual one-page report on 2011-12 tuition rates, they used a fall-to-fall comparison, calculating MSU's increase at 9.4 percent. Wayne State University is in a similar bind at 8.8 percent.
But the Legislature didn't write fall-to-fall; it wrote "any semester." And MSU should not be punished for opting to spend federal money on students when it could easily have spent it on other expenses.
Beating up higher education has become a hobby of some at the Capitol. It's destructive. And, given the reprehensible drop in state funding to universities over the past decade, it's also ridiculous. Michigan's universities are essential to its future economic prosperity. Harming them only hurts the state in the long term.
Fortunately, Nixon and his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder, know that. Michiganians will be counting on them to do the right thing.