‘U’ community reacts to increasing tuition, fees

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - 8:23pm

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The University of Michigan Board of Regents approved a series of tuition and room-and-board increases at their June 20 meeting

The headline of the University’s press release emphasizes the 1.9 percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase is the lowest in six years, with a lower-division rate of $15,588, $296 more than last year. Lower-division refers to students who’ve completed 0 to 54 credits towards their degree. 

In the same sentence, the release notes an 11.2 percent increase in the financial aid budget to offset the increases in tuition, bringing total funding allocated for need-based aid to $228.6 million. This means most in-state students receiving need-based aid will not pay more in tuition costs this coming year, the release explained. 

At the June Regents meeting, University Provost Martin Philbert provided data to show University tuition costs are the lowest or among the lowest compared to other public institutions for families making up to $110K.

University President Mark Schlissel also emphasized his commitment to affordability, particularly for in-state students. 

“By investing in academic excellence and our commitment to affordability, we are ensuring that Michigan residents who need it most will see no increase in their tuition cost as they study at a world-class public research university,” Schlissel said. 

Out-of-state undergraduate tuition will increase by 3.7 percent, an increase of $1850 to bring total tuition to $51,200. Graduate tuition is set to increase 3.2 percent, a $762 increase for in-state students and a $1526 increase for out-of-state students. 

There will also be a 4 percent increase for on-campus room-and-board rates, which the release said will go towards future renovations and preserving improvements in recently-renovated buildings. According to the release, eight residence halls are in need of “major upgrades.”

Additionally, the University is introducing a $500 per term fee for international students on F and J type visas “to help cover the cost of sustaining and enhancing services to support this important student segment.” These include costs associated with regulation compliance, which the release said now requires more staff time and expertise as they become more complicated. 

“It will take some time to determine the specific ways in which the funding generated by the fee will be utilized,” the release said. 

Prior to this fee, there was no difference in tuition costs between out-of-state and international students. The fee will put the University “in alignment” with other universities with additional fees or greater tuition costs for international students, the press release stated.

In the press release, the University said it will cover the international student fee for Ph.D. students, graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants.

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While presenting at the June meeting, Philbert explained tuition would be $6400 without endowment support. As of October 2018, the University of Michigan has an endowment of $11.9 billion, “the ninth largest among U.S. universities and third among public universities after two university systems.” According to the University, about 22 percent, or $2.5 billion, of the endowment is used for student scholarships and fellowships. 

The University, which some say has developed an "elite reputation," has struggled with socioeconomic diversity in the past. A 2016 study by the Equality of Opportunity Project found almost 10 percent of the University’s student body come from the top 1 percent of income earners, and 66 percent come from the top 20 percent. In contrast, only 3.6 percent come from the bottom 20 percent.

The project also ranked the University last out of 25 “highly selective” public schools in terms of social economic mobility, and found that of this group, the University had the highest median family income of $154,000.  

Recently however, the University has received praise for its efforts towards affordability, especially for the Go Blue Guarantee introduced January 2018, which guarantees four years of tuition for students from families making $65K or less a year. Previous Daily reporting has found the Go Blue Guarantee seems to be successful so far in attracting students from low-income households. 

U-M is also the least expensive institution in the state for families making less than $75K, and it was ranked within the top ten “best colleges for your money” in the nation in 2018. 

Sridhar Kota, a University professor of engineering, penned a Detroit News article commending the University’s “surprising leadership,” as he said U-M is “allocating an unusually high portion of its fundraising capacity to student financial aid.”

Stephen DesJardins, University professor of education and public policy, explained U-M’s pricing strategies are “typical” for a public university. 

“(The University is doing) pretty well in terms of in-state students," DesJardins said. "The undergraduate in-state tuition increase is relatively low, and they target aid to groups that may be more negatively impacted by said increases." 

As a state-supported public institution, DesJardins said the University has “no obligation” to provide aid to out-of-state students. However, DesJardins explained the University does so to promote other goals, such as to increase the diversity of the student body.

However, some students believe the University could still do more towards college affordability. Since the announcement was made in June, a U-M student meme page has seen an influx of posts upset about the increases, which have received hundreds of likes each. 

LSA senior Ryan McGinnis, an in-state student who posted a meme in the U-M meme group comparing the tuition increases to a “raid,” said he is “quite upset” with the increases. McGinnis believes the University’s endowment is large enough that it doesn’t have to raise tuition at all. 

“It exemplifies everything that is wrong with how colleges are run in the United States,” McGinnis said. “We have a university that has a $11.9 billion endowment — larger than several Ivy League schools — they’re publicly funded, they don’t pay any property taxes, and yet they can’t make the tuition affordable for the average middle-class Michigan citizen. … They’re running it like a business.”

Affordable Michigan president Laura Rall, an in-state second-year Social Work graduate student, agreed with McGinnis. While acknowledging other universities in the state may need to raise tuition in face of inadequate state funding, Rall said the University’s endowment size should mean there does not need to be increases. 

However, DesJardins explained there are restrictions on how money composing the endowment may be used, as donors are allowed to earmark the money they gift for certain uses.

“You can’t just go dip into endowment and take out whatever you want, there’s rules on how that money can be used and what it can be used for” DesJardins said. “One good thing in the last campaign that (the University) did is they tried to get more funds that would be earmarked for financial aid.”

Affordable Michigan grew out of the student-made guide Being Not-Rich at UM, a response to a CSG affordability guide criticized for being “out-of-touch.” When discussing affordability, Rall explained there are more factors beyond the price of tuition.

“At the very bottom (of the press release), they put the room-and-board increase of 4 percent — that’s pretty significant, especially since over 90 percent of freshmen coming in live in the dorms,” Rall said. “So really, they increased the cost-of-living by almost 6 percent.”

Rall also pointed out the press release writes 70 percent of in-state students receive financial aid, which includes loans. She expressed this figure can be misleading, noting “who isn’t taking out a student loan to pay for their tuition?”

McGinnis acknowledged the University’s recent investments towards affordability. However, he expressed it is “too little, too late” for some middle-class students, like some of his friends who need to work several jobs or transfer from community colleges to afford an education at U-M. 

In a statement to the Daily, U-M College Democrats communications director Camille Mancuso, Public Policy junior, noted the link between college affordability and accessibility, and its impact on social mobility.

“A lack of affordability not only discourages low-income students from applying to college, but also creates barriers to their success,” Mancuso wrote. “Rising tuition prices are a large part of this inequality, but college affordability must also include affordable housing, food security, and workers’ rights on campus.”

Rall mentioned the Washington University in St. Louis, which raised tuition but also approved a university-wide minimum wage increase for on-campus jobs. Similar moves by U-M, Rall said, could help “offset a continuous raise in tuition.” 

Some students on the U-M meme page have also voiced concerns with the new international student fee, which they say further hurt affordability given international students are not eligible for many federal, state and university scholarships, grants and other sources of aid. 

Among them include Engineering sophomore Tony Pan, an international student from China. Acknowledging international students require additional resources, Pan said he would be okay with the fee if he was provided more justification for why the fee is needed. 

“There’s this stereotype that international students are wealthy, but I don’t think that is always true,” Pan said. “I don’t actually see what they’re doing with the money, who knows what it’s actually going toward. $500 per semester is a pretty significant amount.”

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According to Schlissel, part of the responsibility in promoting college affordability falls on the state government. At the June meeting, Schlissel discussed the state’s impact on increasing college costs during his opening remarks. 

“We continue to be disappointed in the state’s chronic underfunding of higher education,” Schlissel said. “The state can and should do more for its rising generation.”

In his presentation, Philbert’s chart shows U-M has received more funding from the state government every year since 2012. However, it has decreased overall since 2002, from $364 million to $321 million. 

Moreover, Philbert pointed out state funding for higher education has not kept up with the rate of inflation, leaving a $247 million gap between the current-day value of 2002 state appropriation toward U-M and how much the U-M received in state funding in the 2019 fiscal year. 

However, Rall, McGinnis and U-M College Democrats all said both the University and the state are responsible for keeping college costs low. 

“While some of this burden lies with the state legislature to prioritize higher education with increased funding, it is ultimately the job of the regents to set tuition,” Mancuso wrote. “Rather than passing responsibility onto each other, the state legislature and regents should work together to ultimately decrease tuition prices for students.”

University of Michigan College Republicans has not responded to response for comment by press time. 

State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) spoke with the Daily, acknowledging state funding for higher education has “slacked.” Irwin explained during the baby boomer generation, the state government was funding 75 to 80 percent of the cost of undergraduate education. However, in the last half-decade, state support has dropped, meaning students now must bear 75 to 80 percent of the cost of college through tuition, Irwin said. 

Because of this flip in who must bear the majority of college costs, institutions including U-M have had to employ a variety of measures to ensure there isn’t a one-to-one tradeoff between amount of state support of price of tuition, DesJardins explained. These include reducing costs through enhancing efficiency, using endowment money and increasing the proportion of out-of-state students.

DesJardins compared the state budget to a pie, explaining other components of this “pie”, such as financing K-12 education, welfare and the prison system have not only been prioritized but have also gotten more expensive.

“State budgets get balanced on the backs of higher ed … in part because (legislators) know higher ed has the ability to get money from somewhere else, which is basically tuition and fees,” DesJardins said. 

Irwin surmised attitudes towards prioritizing funding for higher education have changed because the Republican Party controls the state legislature, which sets the state budget. 

“The result of that stranglehold the GOP has had on state budget is that higher education has been a big loser,” Irwin said. “I have noticed a current of anti-intellectual sentiment and a feeling among some of my conservative colleagues that higher education is some elitist play. To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I see higher education as a tool for social mobility.” 

Irwin specifically noted the 15 percent cut in higher education funding by the former Governor Rick Snyder’s (R) administration in 2011. However, he also mentioned higher education suffered under former governors Jennifer Granholm (D) and John Engler (R).

The Daily contacted State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who has not responded to request for comment by press time. 

Schlissel has addressed the state of Michigan’s struggles with college affordability, penning an article in Crain’s Detroit Business in February emphasizing the link between college accessibility and the state’s economic prosperity. 

Data also suggests a college education is hard to obtain for many students in the state. Michigan ranked 11th highest in the nation for student loan debt in 2016, and students paid the 6th highest percentage of tuition in 2015. Though the national average spending per undergraduate student for need-based aid is $533, Michigan only spends $223 per student, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

In 2015, the Simple Dollar ranked Michigan as the sixth worst state for college affordability, citing rising tuition costs and a median wage lower than the national average. Michigan still ranks among the bottom half of states when it comes to percentage of adults with college degrees, though that percentage is seeing an increase. 

In 2018, Amazon passed on establishing their second headquarters in Detroit, citing an inadequate talent pool and less importantly, weak regional transit. Though Irwin said he personally does not believe Amazon would’ve been a positive addition for Detroit, he discussed how lack of support for higher education could otherwise impact the state’s economy. 

“We used to be such leaders … in investing in human capital, in social mobility, in the knowledge of the world,” Irwin said. “Now, we’re falling behind and we’re resting upon the investments of previous generations. … It’s made it much more difficult for Michigan to compete for and win good jobs; it’s reduced the flow of innovation which leads to economic development and prosperity. Michigan has really missed out.” 

Anne Johnson, a third-year in-state LSA student, said she believes the state’s lack of commitment to higher education is also reflected in K-12 education. They cited their own hometown, which they said does not receive enough funding and has a literacy issue, as an example of a “statewide non-commitment to education.”

“If we want people to start moving back … if we want Michigan to flourish, we need to start by treating our young people well,” Johnson said. “No one will want to move and start a family in Michigan if they don’t think their kids can’t get a quality education.”

In particular, Rall said she’d like to see increased focus and recruitment on more rural, low-income or northern areas of Michigan, as well as increased funding for both trade schools and higher education. 

“I personally feel like (higher education) really caters to the Southeast Michigan community,” Rall said. 

Irwin said all the efforts he’d like the University to make are ones they’re already making. He particularly supports initiatives that bring state legislators on-campus and encourages U-M’s Republican regents to reach out to Republican lawmakers. 

The University’s and the state of Michigan’s struggles with the rising cost of higher education join a larger conversation on college affordability and accessibility. These issues have seen greater prominence on the national political stage, where at least 18 of 24 Democratic primary candidates have voiced support for some form of free college. 

McGinnis said he is glad college affordability is gaining traction in the national sphere, as he believes it’s a problem many younger individuals face due to changing economic and societal forces, one with potential long-lasting economic ramifications. 

“I’ve argued with my parents about this on a fair bit — 50 years ago, a high school education was all you needed to be successful … but a lot of those jobs just aren’t here anymore,” McGinnis said. “There’s a generation of people mired in student loan debt who are not buying houses, buying cars … it’s damaging the economy because they’re not spending.”

In particular, DesJardins is interested in how loan debt can impact individuals. He said he is currently studying how student loan debt can affect education and life course outcomes, such as whether or not to stay in school, choice of career, timing of marriage and life satisfaction. 

To continue to propel college affordability to the forefront of government priorities, Irwin expressed it is important for college-age students to vote. For young voters in Michigan, casting absentee ballots has been made easier by a U-M College Democrats-backed lawsuit which spurred changes at the Michigan Secretary of State.

Mancuso said the U-M College Democrats believe student activism is behind the greater focus on college affordability. 

“Student activists have been advocating for college affordability long before it became part of a national conversation,” Mancuso wrote. “It is important that students continue to fight for college affordability—and that elected officials listen.”

Rall said support for higher education only leads to a more educated populace, which is beneficial for everyone. 

“When you preference higher ed for everybody, and when you’re allowing students from low-income backgrounds to then get their degree, then you’re able to have a more representative government and a more representative society,” Rall said. “That alone should be like, “Yes, why shouldn’t everyone who wants to go to college get that opportunity?’”