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Commentary

Michigan's race to the bottom on higher education funding

Jack Lessenberry

I like to kick back and get wild and crazy late at night. For example, one thing I usually do is drink some strong coffee and read a detailed summary of what the legislature did that day. Reading the news from Lansing doesn’t usually make me laugh out loud.

 However, one item yesterday actually did. State Representative Al Pscholka, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was shocked, shocked to learn that two state universities had raised tuition by more than the 3.2 percent figure the legislature asked them not to exceed.

“I thought we had better relationships with our universities,” he said. This reminded me that after the Civil War, some bewildered plantation owners really seemed to believe their slaves were happy and couldn’t understand their wanting to be free.

Similarly, the politicians in Lansing have been systematically starving state universities of revenue for years, even as those schools’ costs have been soaring. Michigan State, for example, got 45 percent of its total budget from the state back in 1987. Three years ago, that had fallen to less than 18 percent, and it’s less today.

Pscholka, who is in his mid-50s, graduated from Western Michigan in the early 1980s, when tuition was a fraction of what it is now. Since then, he’s worked in politics virtually all his life. He’s a good conservative Republican, and may not understand that when it comes to education, he benefited enormously from the Cold War.

Our nation freaked out when the Soviet Union was first to launch a satellite into outer space, and rushed to make funds available for higher education. But starting around 1980, state support for higher education began to decline nationally – and decline in Michigan even faster.

Three years ago, the American Council on Education published a report: “State Funding: A Race to the Bottom.” It projected that if present trends continue, state funding for education would reach zero in Michigan by 2032. There have been some slight increases since then, but not nearly enough to reduce the trend.

I wouldn’t say that universities themselves are totally blameless; there has been a huge increase in the number of administrators, many of dubious paper-pushing value. But in general, we’ve been starving our schools just when a college education is more important than ever.

Pscholka and his colleagues’ idea of how to deal with rising costs is not to give the schools more money; it is to give them less and punish them for raising tuition. But the penalty itself is laughable. Oakland University raised its tuition by more than eight percent this week.

That will cost it a million dollars in lost state money, but the school will get about $12 million from the tuition increase. Eastern Michigan did much the same. I’m surprised more schools didn’t follow suit, especially Wayne State, where I teach. Lansing gave my school an increase of less than one half a percent.

Pscholka says he sees the problem and intends to do something about it. Not, however, increase funding to help both the schools and the students. Instead, he wants to find a way to better punish the universities. Yes, you might call this a race to the bottom, and with leaders like these, Michigan may very well win.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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