On page 34B of the farce masquerading as her higher education budget proposal, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed a 3-percent budget cut to state universities.

In the next paragraph, playing the world’s smallest violin, she beseeched colleges to freeze their tuition rates in light of “difficult economic times” for students and families.

Apparently Granholm’s bargain for universities is “Don’t raise tuition and, in exchange, we’ll cut your aid.” I suppose she also expects universities to maintain their quality of instruction and research, too.

Governor, I want a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean I can get one.

Aside from state officials’ impossible dreams, historical analysis shows something more pernicious at work. Instead of making reasonable appropriations to support higher education, Michigan has quietly shifted the cost of higher education from the state to students.

Using data from the University of Michigan’s Office of Budget, I calculated the percentages of the University system’s general fund revenues provided by state funding and tuition since the turn of the century. In 2001-02, tuition dollars made up 54 percent of general fund revenues. This school year, they make up 64 percent. In contrast, the state’s contribution to the University has slipped from 34 percent to 24 percent. These trends do not reflect runaway spending increases at the University; they reflect reductions in Lansing’s contribution.

Adjusting funding totals for inflation with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes the picture bleaker. To put it in starker terms, the governor has proposed $362.1 million in funding to the University system in 2009-10. If state funding kept up with inflation, the system would get $511.3 million. Undergraduates and their families will have to pay higher tuition to bridge that $149.2 million gap.

No matter how the numbers get sliced, they demonstrate the wholesale gutting of higher education funding during the last decade. The state of Michigan has abdicated its responsibility to make a good college education accessible to all residents who have the talent for it.

In calling for a tuition freeze, Granholm cynically hopes to shift responsibility and outrage for the state’s own shortcomings to state universities to raise tuition.

But the numbers don’t lie. Politicians do — and we’re paying for it.

So Michigan Student Assembly President Sabrina Shingwani, what are you going to do about this?

What about you, LSA Student Government President Leslie Zaikis?

And all the rest of you, elected officials in student government?

I’m calling you all out. Despite popular opinion, I know you’re intelligent and hard-working and you care about us. Here’s an issue to mobilize your constituents. Here’s your chance to make a real difference in student government.

And you, Nathanial Eli Coats Styer over at the University’s chapter of the College Democrats — I’m calling you and your organization out. You registered 4,700 voters last fall. I challenge you to get 4,700 signatures on a petition to Lansing.

And what about all of us at the Graduate Employees Organization? Last year, we stood up for ourselves and won a great contract. Now we have a chance to stand up for our students. So Solidarity Committee Chair Shana Greenstein, let’s get to work.

We need to pass resolutions, circulate petitions and call lawmakers to apply pressure. We need to organize our constituents and members and encourage them to make a difference. But most of all, we need to work together and coordinate our activities. Together, we speak much louder than we do as individuals.

Finally, we need to contact our sister organizations at every other state university — from Michigan State University to Grand Valley State University. When 100 students from Ann Arbor show up at the capital, no one cares. But if 10,000 students from all over Michigan march on Lansing, lawmakers might wake up.

So man the phone banks. Fire up the word processors. Knock on some doors. Light the torches. Sharpen the pitchforks. Let’s tell state lawmakers exactly what to do with Granholm’s higher education budget proposal — loudly and often.

And for once, let’s organize as a community and stick up for ourselves.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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