Investigative
10:27 am
Thu February 24, 2011

More cuts to public universities?

For eight years, year after year, the state of Michigan has been cutting the money it distributes among the 15 public universities.

“We haven’t been chiseling around the edges.  We haven’t been making minor adjustments.  We’ve been really making huge cuts.”

That’s Charles Ballard.  He’s an economist at Michigan State University.  Compared to eight years ago, the state money given to the universities has fallen by $350-million a year.  What does that kind of state money mean to the universities?  Ballard says to put it in perspective, look at it this way.

“If instead of reducing all of the 15 universities by about the same proportion, what if we had started at the smallest, which is Lake Superior, and just zeroed out that account?  How many would you have to zero-out to be equivelent to the budget cuts of the last eight years?"

Ballard says it would zero-out state dollars for:

  • Michigan Tech
  • Northern
  • Lake Superior
  • Ferris State
  • Saginaw Valley State
  • Grand Valley State
  • U of M-Flint
  • Oakland
  • U of M-Dearborn
  • Eastern
  • and cut Central in half

So… clearly the part of a public university’s budget which comes from the public has been shrinking a lot. With fewer state tax dollars going to the universities, they’ve had to make cuts and most have increased student tuition.

Now more cuts could be coming.

The Governor met with the presidents of the 15 public universities in January.  The Governor warned that short-term the state budget deficit will call for continued “shared sacrifice,” but he added, long-term the state needs to invest more in higher education.

So when the Governor’s budget included a 15% further cut in support for the universities, it might not have been a huge surprise for the university presidents.  That doesn’t mean they like it.

Michael Boulus is the Executive Director of the Presidents Council, which represents the universities in Lansing.  Boulus says these cuts to the public universities miss a point about job creation in Michigan.

“The dominant story that there are no jobs here in Michigan.  The problem with the dominant story is that when it comes to high-skilled jobs it’s just flat out wrong.”

So there are jobs.  There’s a demand in some sectors for highly-skilled, college-educated workers in Michigan.  Boulus says we need to be cranking out more engineers and advanced IT experts. 

“The jobs of the future require the highest proportion of high-skilled workers.  So, for Michigan to grow its economy and its income, we’re going to need to focus on what matters most  to the high wage growing sector of the American economy and that’s talent.  That’s what Michigan’s universities bring to this equation.”

And Boulus says Michigan is losing ground to other states that have continued to invest in their public universities.  The state funds help keep tuition lower.  Having money attracts better professors and researchers.  And in the end, that means better educated students.

When the Governor presented the budget to members of the legislature, one Senator brought up that Michigan Dashboard the governor mentioned in his State of the State address.   Senator Rebekah Warren is a Democrat from Ann Arbor.  Two public universities, Eastern Michigan and the University of Michigan lie within her senate district.  She was thinking of that dashboard measurement that shows Michigan’s number of college grads is lower than the U.S. average.

“Our state average has been below the national average for way too long.  Only about 24% of our citizens have a bachelors degree and above.  The community that I represent has double that.  About 51% of the people that I represent have a bachelors degree and above, consistently some of the lowest unemployment in the state.  So, that metric makes sense to me.  I can see in my own backyard that that works.  What I don’t understand, then, is in a budget where you propose significant cuts to pre-K-12 through university, how you expect to get this kind of outcome with less funding.”

“You know, that’s a very good question.”

That’s John Nixon, Governor Snyder’s Budget Director, responding to Senator Warren.

“Higher education is one of the pillars to long term economic development.  Certainly an educational system is.  Whenever you have companies looking to recruit to a state, one of the first things they look at is the higher education system to make sure that there’s talent there.”

So, a highly-educated workforce is good.  It’ll draw employers.  But…

“We had to get the budget into balance.  We had to bring order back to the fiscal house.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have priorities in administration.  That doesn’t mean that higher education won’t and will continue to be a—or-- won’t be a priority going forward.   But, really this is an intermediary step in really developing a long-term plan.  These are issues we haven’t been able to get to because we’re always dealing with the crisis of the budget,” Nixon explained.

Senate hearings on money for the public universities will be held soon.  Senator Tonya Schuitmaker, a Republican from Lawton, chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.  She expects the Governor’s budget cuts to be approved.

“I think we all want a great education system.  I think we have wonderful universities and higher institutions in our state, but the fact of the matter is is that we have to make very tough decisions in this faltering economy which shows less revenues coming in.  So, everyone is going to have to tighten their belt.”

Senator Schuitmaker says she thinks the universities can handle more funding cuts and not raise tuition to make up for the cuts. 

I asked the Senator whether cutting money for public universities seemed to work against the Governor’s “dashboard measurement” to increase the number of college grads in Michigan’s workforce.

“It’s certainly important to focus upon moving that metric up, but I would submit to you just because we ask universities to cut some of their costs it doesn’t prohibit that.  And because Governor Snyder has asked for some tuition restraint language and hopefully they won’t pass that cut on to the students with that included in it.”

The governor seems to recognize what he says he wants for the state and the budget he just introduced are seemingly at odds.  But he says you have to think long-term when considering the budget.

“From a personal perspective, these were tough calls to make.  Many of us are going to have to sacrifice something in the short-term.  But, I can tell you with confidence, with conviction by making these sacrifices, we can all win together in the long-term.  And that’s what we need to achieve.  Because it’s about coming together, being inclusive and winning together in this state.  And that’s what we’re focused on.”

So, Governor Snyder is asking us to trust him to gamble on more cuts to things like higher education with the hope that it will help turn around the state’s economy and the government’s budget problems, hinting as things get better there’ll be more money for the public universities someday.