Melissa Scholke: Alleviating the under-funded

By Melissa Scholke, Columnist
Published January 13, 2015

Every break, as I try to escape the University’s enclosed sphere of academia, I’m reminded — after approximately a seven-hour drive and a family discussion — of the extent to which education is firmly entwined with my life. Memories of chalkboards, glossy motivational posters and the smells of acrylic paint and glue wafting through the air permeate the mind of every former public school student. In more ways than one, I’ve literally grown up in a classroom.

My family’s livelihood and my financial ability to attend college depend upon Michigan’s public education system. My mother works as an elementary school teacher, while my dad is the head custodian at a high school in my hometown. As a little girl, my afternoons were spent bouncing between my parents’ respective workplaces. If I wasn’t coloring or placing graded assignments back on empty student desks in my mom’s classroom, I was with my father who briefly acquired a tiny shadow with a messy blonde mop-top as he traversed the halls emptying wastebaskets. However, my parents are certainly not the only members of this surrounding community of educators. My family’s circle of friends includes a sizeable portion of custodians, teachers and administrators; even some of my closest friends are the children of teachers.

For a while, friends outside of the education circle held onto the peculiar notion that my mother’s occupation bolstered my academic performance somehow — as if she wrote a separate lesson plan for home and quizzed me during dinnertime. They were surprisingly right in one respect. While I thankfully never received any extra assignments at home, I quickly learned education is both an extremely important and tremendously costly venture. Likewise, a strong work ethic is indispensable. As the daughter of a teacher and a custodian, I saw firsthand the vast amount of effort necessary to manage and maintain a classroom. I watched and waited in the background as my mother spent hours preparing for the next day’s lesson, or as my father arrived home late after a long evening of cleaning.

As I grew, I came to understand that although education is absolutely crucial for the development of our society, it’s also severely underfunded and inaccessible to far too many people. The sight of my mother buying supplies demonstrated how money from teachers’ paychecks often contributes to keeping a classroom stocked. Education, no matter the grade level, is expensive. As students matriculate in the public school system, the price of education evolves from teachers supplementing the classroom’s supply of construction paper and crayons to students assuming massive sums of student loan debt — as well as time-consuming part-time jobs — in order to afford tuition, books, rent and everyday essentials.

According to an analysis conducted by a youth advocacy group known as Young Invincibles, the state of Michigan’s attempts to offer funding for higher education deserve a failing grade. The group ranked states’ investments in higher education by measuring five criteria: tuition, state appropriations average, average burden on families, financial aid for students and higher education as a priority. Young Invincibles then issued each state in the country a report card. Tom Allison, policy and research manager at Young Invincibles, speculated in an interview that cuts to the education budget were one of many factors contributing to Michigan’s poor performance. For example, during the beginning of Gov. Rick Snyder’s first term in 2011, the amount of money allocated for funding higher education was reduced by 15 percent.

In another interview responding to the ranking, Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, stated: “The cut in state funding which has caused the universities to raise tuition very rapidly … The relatively high rate of tuition in the first place and the relatively low grade of spending by the state on scholarships means Michigan is a fairly unaffordable state for higher education for most students.”

Increasing tuition and depleting state assistance for higher education further hinders students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds from attaining a degree or attending any academic institution of higher education in the first place. An alternative method to improve the accessibility of higher education was recently proposed by President Barack Obama last week. Following a plan that is already in place in Tennessee, Obama’s proposed tuition initiative guarantees that “two years of community college will become as free and universal as high school is today.” The tuition plan, if enacted, would offer free community college tuition to qualifying students for three years as long as they attend school at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

Unfortunately, the plan as it currently stands doesn’t necessarily offer a definitive plan of action. The program would greatly benefit Pell Grant recipients who attend community college by financing their tuition and allowing them to use grant funds toward cost-of-living expenses. However, the program would also offer assistance to students of the upper and middle classes, who may not often be in desperate need for these funds. Likewise, other complications in the initiative could arise with the states’ reluctance to partially fund the program and the need to reform community college courses so they provide a bridge between institutions by offering credit that’s transferable to other universities. Also, if enacted, the program should be amended to offer aid to students attending four-year institutions as well.

Considering countries like Germany and Finland offer free tuition to their college students — and even to English-speaking international students — Obama’s proposal hopefully demonstrates an impending reform in the realm of U.S. education. The plan is not perfect, but it’s a spark to reignite a broken system. Education is crucial but costly. Whether Obama’s plan is passed or not, the fate of the initiative’s main goal in future legislation will illustrate to the public how much our elected officials actually value providing access to quality education.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.