September 05, 2013/MLive
Thomas Haas is the president of Grand Valley State University, which is the fifth largest public university in Michigan with more than 24,000 students.
By Thomas Haas
Two weeks ago President Obama highlighted his concerns about the high cost of college. His remarks resonated. How do I know this? Because we deal with students and families every day, working to build trust and provide financial aid to help them with the expenses of college attendance.
The President has proposed that colleges with high costs and with low graduation rates be disqualified from federal student aid programs; he has further called on the states to stop cutting taxpayer support to universities. For years, states have cut appropriations, colleges have raised tuition, and students have borrowed to pay the bill. It is imbalanced. This must stop. And it is unsustainable.
There is no question that college costs more – to students. Michigan has been shifting costs from taxpayers to students longer than most other states. Grand Valley State University is the poster child for this lamentable shift in policy. Thirty years ago, Lansing provided 75 percent of Grand Valley’s revenue. This year, Lansing provides 15 percent. While generous donors have helped Grand Valley expand scholarships and construct new buildings, tuition now covers nearly all of our operating costs.
We didn’t ask for this outcome, but those of us running universities must deal with the reality. And while we continue to ask lawmakers to resume investment in higher education now that the state budget has stabilized, we have taken action where we can by eliminating unnecessary prerequisites, restricting budgets, stabilizing employment, and accelerating time to graduation. The less time a student spends in college, the less it will cost.
Here are actions that colleges, students and lawmakers can take together to reduce the cost of a degree – still the most important investment in one’s future that a person can make:
• Complete a college degree as quickly as possible. Year round attendance is possible in many programs. At Grand Valley, 40 percent of students who graduated in four years or less left college with no debt.
• Start at a community college, and then transfer to a four-year campus. Michigan is blessed with high quality two-year schools, where the cost of attendance – supported by more robust revenue from taxpayers – is significantly less.
"The President and the Governor are right – colleges should be held accountable for their performance."
• Take advantage of advance placement and dual enrollment opportunities in high school. Some new students arriving at Grand Valley this fall are actually second-semester freshmen. This action alone can save a student $5,000.
• Be on the lookout for free money. Most colleges have greatly increased financial aid for needy students. At Grand Valley, the average gift aid – money that does not need to be repaid – reduces the cost of attendance by $3,500 per year.
• State policy makers must ask if our scarce current tax dollars appropriated to higher education are used effectively and efficiently.
• Make state appropriations to higher education predictable and sustainable. It’s a wise public investment. The most prosperous states in the nation are those with the most college graduates.
Both President Obama and Governor Snyder have called on lawmakers to consider institutional performance when making appropriations and for participation in federal student loan programs. I agree.
Colleges that make graduation job one offer the best value. But this is easy to articulate and hard to do, as we’ve seen in Michigan, where state universities recently endured a 15 percent cut in funding.
In the past two years, Governor Snyder proposed that any replacement revenue be allocated based on how effectively universities perform on quality measures such as retention and graduation. And Grand Valley, performing at the top of our class, has been recognized for its success. We take great pride in this recognition. But this year less than 2 percent of the state’s allocation is tied to performance, meaning 98 percent is not.
Grand Valley’s students wonder why they receive the least amount of state funding (almost last in the nation) per student, while they study at a university that performs as best in class. And the state still doesn’t count the number of students when determining its allocation.
Change is hard. We didn’t arrive at this juncture overnight. But the President and the Governor are right – colleges should be held accountable for their performance. As we move ahead in this new world in higher education, there are many stakeholders – colleges, employers, government and – increasingly – the students paying the bill.
Effective and strategic public policies on higher education depend on partnerships. All should be at the table. This is not just a discussion whose time has come. It is an essential discussion because the current state of financial affairs in higher education cannot continue.
Guest columns can be submitted to Shandra Martinez, the interim Grand Rapids community engagement specialist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @shandramartinez.