Students may be surprised to hear that when they return from the winter break, more than just their classes could change. Due to a large state budget shortfall, the University may need to raise tuition rates for the coming semester. The news could hardly have hit Michigan students and families at a worse time. They should look to the state and to the University Board of Regents to stop this trend of state budget cuts to the University and increasing tuition rates.
The University’s tuition rate already ranks among the highest of any public university in the nation. Last January, in her State of the State address, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said that if universities held their tuition at or below the rate of inflation, that they would face reduced budget cuts for the coming fiscal term. However, last week, it became clear that the state would be facing a much larger budget shortfall than was expected. As a result, additional cuts to higher education are likely.
Last year, the University made a deal with Lansing, promising to cap tuition at the rate of inflation in exchange for a $20 million restoration of funds from the University. The administration made this agreement on the condition that the state would not continue to make cuts to the University’s funding throughout the year. Last week, however, the state declared a budget shortfall of $370 million. Soon after the estimate was released, University administrators made it clear that they expect Lansing to back out on the agreement and that they would respond by raising tuition.
A good share of the blame for this situation lies with Lansing. Expecting the University to keep tuition fees at the rate of inflation while its costs, such as health care, have risen dramatically is at best unrealistic. Expecting the University to do so based on data that are far from complete and subject to dramatic change in a few months’ time calls into question the seriousness of Granholm’s original offer.
Although there are always difficult decisions to make in dire economic times such as these, funding higher education should always be a priority. If talented students are driven out of the state because of declining educational quality, Michigan will likely further undergo its “brain drain,” the phenomenon in which young professionals leave for better job opportunities and a more suitable lifestyle. Ignoring the importance of public higher education may be easier for politicians because students are less likely to vote, but is a decision that benefits no one.
The University is not completely without fault either. The regents need to do a better job articulating the needs and concerns of the University to Lansing lawmakers, who clearly have placed higher education on their list of expendables. The regents should be adamant in their demands for state funding and their insistence on the importance of the University to the state of Michigan.
The possible tuition increases could not have come at a worse time, as many students will be caught off guard. Increased cooperation between the state and the University, as well as a re-evaluation of state budget priorities, is needed to avoid further tuition emergencies.