Snyder aims to increase funding for higher education

By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 15, 2014

In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder cut higher education funding by 15 percent — a number that’s been widely advertised this election season as he campaigns to keep his seat in what has become a tight race against Democratic challenger Mark Schauer, a self-described ‘education governor.’

Since 2011, Snyder has continually advocated for the incremental restoration of funding to public higher education institutions each year, with raises of 3.1 percent in 2012, 2.2 percent in 2013 and 6.1 percent in 2014 all passing with the intended long-term goal of fully restoring the pre-2011 funding level. His administration has called it a “strategic reinvestment.” His opponent, Schauer, has criticized the initial reduction of funding, pledging to restore funding completely and immediately if elected.

Snyder’s reinvestment strategy has generally been met with optimism from institutions across the state. The fluctuations in funding follow an overall trend of cuts to higher education funding over the past decade, though none nearly as individually severe as 15 percent.

Jason Cody, a public affairs specialist at Michigan State University, called the latest budget a positive sign for higher education by both the governor and the legislature in a statement. The budget is proposed by the governor in conjunction with the budget office, but needs approval from the legislature.

“This is a major step in the right direction, continuing the positive trend of increasing funding after years of reducing state aid,” he said.

Officials from the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan echoed Cody’s sentiment. Other state institutions did not reply to requests for comment.

“Since (the 2011 cut) the news has been good, it’s been very positive,” said PCSUM Executive Director Dr. Michael Boulus. “The governor has made his intentions clear that he wants to restore the money he has cut over the next year or two. It looks like we’re out of the woods in terms of having to plan budgets and tuition around a negative number.”

Beyond the general reinvestment strategy, several changes to how appropriations are allocated to universities have also been implemented during Snyder’s administration. As of the 2015 fiscal year, universities will be measured across seven key criteria, including number of Pell Grant recipients, six-year graduation rates, degree completion in critical areas, administrative costs, research and development, total degree completion and caps on tuition. These metrics, first implemented in 2012, represent a mixture of recommendations and modifications from both the governor and the legislature, who also play a role in setting the standards.

How much money they affect has fluctuated, but currently, roughly 50 percent of each year’s increase is based on meeting six performance-based standards, with all of that money subsequently being contingent on universities staying within a cap set on tuition increases, the seventh metric.

Among the metrics, the cap on tuition rate increases has proven the most controversial. Though most universities — with the exception of Wayne State University’s 8.9 percent raise in 2013 — have stuck to the limits set by the governor and legislature, they haven’t seen much institutional support.

“We have long argued, and we are not alone, that the decisions about the University’s budget model and its financial well being are ones that the University leadership — and I include in that leadership the very important Board of Regents — should maintain,” said Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations. “They are, after all, the ones that are closest to the details of the budget models and they have ample opportunity to learn and be involved in the discussions around how the University is going to manage, either through difficult times or otherwise.”

Over the past decade, tuition and appropriations have together come to make up almost 75 percent of the state’s public universities’ operating revenue, with raising tuition serving as one recourse to budgetary issues such as rising costs or negative trends in state funding. At the University, tuition is almost 70 percent of the general fund budget as of 2012.

In a conference call with college newspapers Wednesday afternoon, Snyder said he thought the tuition increase caps had been a successful measure. He added that moving forward, he’d like to focus on ways to help universities lower their costs, potentially through efforts to consolidate IT platforms between schools or through schools purchasing needed goods and services as a group.

“I want to work on a more extensive dialogue with the universities and the community colleges themselves in being more helpful on how to contain their cost,” he said. “There’s ways we can work together on doing purchasing and buying and ways to be more efficient and other ways we might be able to provide resources to help them manage their costs or bring down their costs.”

Along with the tuition caps, universities are also evaluated under six other performance-based metrics tied to roughly 50 percent of each year’s increases in funding. As of the 2015 fiscal year, universities will be measured on the number of Pell Grant recipients, six-year graduation rates, degree completion in critical areas, administrative costs, research and development, total degree completion and the caps on tuition.

Within the measures, universities are only compared to institutions considered their peers — an aspect Wilbanks said was critical.

“We wanted to be compared to institutions across the country who were alike in many regards, and by way of that similarity, the public could judge, and certainly policymakers could judge, how the universities stack up with institutions across the country that were similar,” she said. “And that has been a useful tool.”

Boulus said PCSUM, who along with groups including the Business Leaders for Michigan and the state’s universities helped to define the peer-based metrics, have overall been pleased with the final results.

“The governor made it clear to us he’s big on accountability and he told us you can lead, or be led, and we opted to lead,” he said. “I think we’re very, very proud of the fact that we really stepped up to the issue of accountability and transparency, and we did it in a way that we think is fair.”

Several institutions, including Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University, while noting support for the metrics being used to evaluate performance, have expressed concerns about the impact of being classed together with campuses that have relatively fewer lower-income students. The addition of Pell Grants for the upcoming fiscal year, the newest metric, aims to resolve that problem.

“Factoring in Pell Grant recipients supports institutions of opportunity, such as Eastern Michigan and Wayne State, where thousands of lower-income students attend and succeed in achieving a degree,” Geoff Larcom, EMU executive director of media relations, said in a statement.

Snyder has also pushed for several cost management measures targeted to a more individual level, encouraging dual enrollment and career and technical education programs. He identified both in a gubernatorial debate Sunday as a priority for a second term.

While in office, the governor has successfully proposed initiatives that increased the amount of students and institutions eligible for dual enrollment opportunities in the state, as well as initiating programs that match students early with employers through apprenticeships.

“Dual enrollment is the biggest single saver for people because that can bring down your costs by 25 percent on a bachelor’s degree and 50 percent on an associate’s degree,” Snyder said. “It’s an opportunity to get a year of college done while you’re still in high school.”