May 7, 2012/The Detroit News
Business leaders urge improvement in university funding as a priority for budget makers
Recovery from Michigan's Lost Decade is well under way, but the road remains long and uncertain. It will be many years before the state can restore all of the critical investments that were hacked away without much strategic consideration during the bloody budget cutting frenzy.
But as revenue returns, higher education should be at or near the top of the priority list.
Michigan cut more than $1 billion out of college and university funding from 2001 to 2011. State support of higher education declined by nearly 50 percent.
Today in Lansing, Business Leaders for Michigan will discuss the economic impact of that disinvestment in a daylong higher education summit.
The most tangible result has been on tuition. Tuition increases nearly equaling the reduction in state funds — roughly $1 billion — have been passed along to students and their families.
Today four years of tuition at a state university for a Michigan student costs an average of $38,215. That's $20,000 more that an in-state student pays at a public college in North Carolina, whose economic and population demographics are a near mirror image of Michigan's.
But while Michigan was slashing higher education appropriations, North Carolina was adding to them and today spends $2.5 billion a year to support roughly the same number of schools and students that Michigan budgets $1.1 billion to educate.
By contrast, North Carolina spends $600 million less on prisons. Cutting Michigan's $1.9 billion corrections budget isn't as easy as it sounds. But the comparison of spending levels is useful in establishing priorities.
Business leaders are worried about more than access and affordability. The group contends that an increased investment in higher education will deliver economic returns.
A better-educated populace is attractive to job creators and leads to higher personal incomes.
The business leaders aren't asking for a no-strings-attached restoration of higher education funding. They want additional state support tied to performance metrics, including cost-reducing efficiency efforts, as well as responsiveness to the state's economic and employment needs.
Universities have done a lot to cut administrative costs — things like health care, utilities, etc. But they haven't done enough to address academic expenses. The incentive of additional state support should nudge them to look at how efficiently they're spending on professors and other academic resources.
The colleges won't be able to pocket the extra cash. More money from the state, under the group's proposal, will come only if tuition is kept in check.
Business Leaders of Michigan is asking for the addition of $100 million a year for 10 years to get the higher education budget back to previous funding levels. If Michigan is to stay competitive for talent and jobs, that's an investment it should make.