As the holiday season approaches, we are initially denied the traditional “goodwill toward fellow man” as we frantically study for exams, until finally the last textbook is closed and we can let loose in a bountiful outpouring of generosity. At which point, tuition bills for next semester arrive.

It is one of nature’s less-sensible truths that the price of higher education goes up most when the economy is at its worst. Unfortunately, tax revenue typically declines during bad times, and there is a direct correlation between tuition and state appropriations.

But Michigan and 48 other states have already been given an “F” in higher education affordability by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. With state support dropping and a guaranteed reduction of funds from the University of Michigan’s endowment during the current recession, we may actually look back on 2008 as one of the good ole’ days of cheap education. The question seems to be what comes after F?

I, for one, still think the University is worth the price (given, I pay in-state tuition). Sure, it’s more cost-effective to spend freshman and sophomore years at a community college, where intro-level courses will probably be taught in a more personal way than at a big research university. But the University is where the current and future leaders in all areas of study go to live, work and inspire each other. Networking potential alone makes it worth the price tag, not considering the unquantifiable atmosphere of drive and success.

However, tuition hikes have vastly outpaced the rate of inflation. Across the country, public university costs have gone up 439 percent since 1982 while median family income has advanced only 147 percent. Staying cutting edge may be expensive, but paying for it with steep tuition hikes is patently unsustainable.

Assuming we do need all this money to maintain our University’s high quality (which I am willing to do), it has to start coming from somewhere else. A recession may be just what we need to push us into finding that other place.

Sound counterintuitive? Let me explain our situation. The faltering economy will be hitting higher education everywhere, but perhaps nowhere harder than Michigan, where the auto industry is going down hard and jobs are flying everywhere to get out of the way. We suffer the triple threat of rising college costs, a fleeing workforce and a dying industry upon which our economy had been balanced.

But things were very similar in Raleigh, N.C. 50 years ago. Per-capita income was the second lowest in the nation and high-tech jobs made up only 3.3 percent of a workforce comprised mainly of agricultural jobs. Almost the reverse is true today, thanks in large part to the Research Triangle Park, a research and development park designed to bring educators, researchers and businesses together. The group currently employs more than 39,000 highly qualified workers and has redefined the economic composition of the entire state.

We have already begun trying to imitate this structure with the University Research Corridor, an alliance between the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. But North Carolina’s group has one very important advantage. The universities involved in it receive over three times the support from industry than the URC currently collects.

Fortunately for us, we have a large industry right in our backyard. While it is perhaps terminally ill, Congress seems likely to write a big check to Detroit’s auto manufacturers. If Congress wants that money to do something besides delaying the inevitable decline of an outmoded industry, it needs to earmark much of that to go to research. The Detroit Three have the infrastructure, now they need researchers backing them up.

If the Detroit Three are looking for researchers, here we sit, some of the brightest college students in the country. Right now, we are anxiously awaiting our turn to move out of the state. But if billions of dollars from Congress came to the Detroit Three to retool, we would have a reason to stick around.

If Congress does award Chrysler LLC, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. the bailout money they are requesting, they will have the opportunity to reshape our state’s economy. By partnering with some of the strongest research universities in the country, they could bring about the fundamental changes so necessary to their success and begin producing the greener, cheaper cars of the future. Alternative energy-related research jobs would keep college graduates in state. And with increased support from industry, university budgets could rely less heavily on the student. With any luck, the good ole’ days of cheap education may come again.

Bryan Kolk can be reached at beakerk@umich.edu.

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