Making a deal with the state government should not require a leap of faith. When the state threatened to dramatically slash funding for the University if it raised tuition for the 2004-2005 academic year at a pace faster than the rate of inflation, the University backed down with the understanding that it would have $20 million of previously cut state funding restored. However, an unrelenting budget crisis has made it increasingly likely that the state will renege on its end of the bargain. Last month, the University announced that it was considering a tuition increase for the current semester, but because the state has yet to officially go back on its funding pledge, the University has not acted. With less than a week until tuition is due, no mid-year increase is possible; the state will cut the University’s funding, but there will be no corresponding tuition adjustment to offset the loss. Academic standards will suffer in the short run, and students’ pocketbooks will suffer in the long run as the University — with no incentive to keep tuition low — ratchets up the cost of attendance.
This funding debacle is more than just another example of the state’s fiscal irresponsibility. The possibility of effective future partnerships between the University — a public institution — and the state is lost. By consistently cutting higher education funding and breaking pledges, the state has turned its back on higher public education in Michigan.
Lansing’s almost certain decision to cut funding for higher education is sure to negatively impact the University. The “Michigan Difference” campaign, though effective in raising funds for specific endeavors at the University, does not compensate for the loss of funding at the state level. Despite the good fortune of having the world’s largest alumni foundation, the University remains a public university where state funds are essential.
Former University President James Burrill Angell once said that the University offers “an uncommon education for the common man.” But, as the University becomes more reliant on private funding — and thus, more expensive — so will go the hope of offering an affordable education. The University is already one of the most expensive state schools in the nation — in-state students pay almost $20,000 per year (including housing), while out-of-state students shell out nearly $40,000. The University’s attempts to provide its students with the opportunity to attend a socioeconomically and racially diverse school will be increasingly meaningless when an exorbitant tuition rate permits only wealthy students to attend.
Whether Lansing knows it or not, pricing students out of top-quality higher education will have far-reaching effects on the economic prognosis for the state of Michigan. As Gov. Jennifer Granholm has argued, Michigan’s long-term economic plan should be to encourage post-secondary education and build a knowledgeable workforce that attracts modern industry and commerce. Investing in public universities is vital if the state is to attract higher-paying jobs outside the shrinking manufacturing sector. It is also necessary to prevent the brain-drain that is leaving the state devoid of its most educated and capable citizens.
Higher education is a fundamental element of the state’s economic and social well-being, and public universities enable all citizens — not just those who are already wealthy — to become productive, successful members of society. As Lansing grapples with its budget crisis, it has pushed public education to the wayside and let the future of our state hang precariously in the balance.