Gov. Jennifer Granholm and legislators in Lansing went back on yet another funding promise for higher education last week when the state Senate and state House appropriations committees approved a $30 million cut for state colleges and universities. Granholm had previously promised an end to the funding cuts, so long as any tuition increases were capped below the rate of inflation. Thus far the University has kept up its end of the deal — Lansing, unfortunately, has not.
Originally, Granholm attempted to conceal the cuts with a less visible executive order, but Republicans quickly caught on, and unilateral cuts were defeated in a party line vote. The final appropriation cuts were couched in a larger proposal allocating $100 million in capital outlay funds to state universities for earmarked construction projects. Outlay funds, however, are only useful to schools planning construction projects. Furthermore, they provide a one-time infusion of cash that, over time, will not offset the annual loss of $30 million from state university appropriations. To ensure final passage of the bill, Granholm and the state Legislature increased the amount of capital outlay funds available to $200 million, but did nothing to address the $30 cut to discretionary education appropriations. While Granholm did stipulate that higher education would receive some money back in the rare event that state tax revenue outpaces estimates, this is hardly any help to state institutions starved for cash.
The current budget crisis in the state of Michigan is the convenient reasoning behind Granholm’s higher education cuts. Her plan for moving Michigan into the 21st century, unfortunately, does not match up with her budget priorities. At the recommendation of the Cherry Commission on Higher Education, Granholm has proposed doubling the number of college graduates in the next decade and upgrading Michigan’s manufacturing-based economy. While articulating these goals, however, Granholm has simultaneously slashed funds for the institutions necessary to realize her goals. The $30 million in cuts from higher education this year equates to 0.3 percent of the total state budget for 2006 fiscal year. If Granholm believes higher education is as important to the future of Michigan as she says, then surely she could have either found something else to throw out of the budget or come up with a way to generate revenue.
Indeed, the state’s persistent structural budget deficit has undoubtedly been the cause of recent funding cuts to higher education. Successive income tax breaks during the ’90s stifled the state’s income stream, and stopgap measures in the last few years have been unable to replace lost revenue. By law, the state is required to run a balanced budget. If Granholm managed to find a lasting solution to the state’s budget deficit, she could ensure that higher education receives its due funding. While this may entail politically unpopular tax hikes, it may be necessary for thee state’s long-term fiscal and economic health.
U.S. Rep. Joe Schwartz (R-Battle Creek) has a proposal to revamp Michigan’s budgetary priorities. Schwartz supports the creation of a separate fund for higher education. “I don’t believe you can continue to fund the universities as a (discretionary) item in the general fund,” Schwartz said last week. Schwartz is on point in calling for a separate, restricted fund for higher education. A higher education trust fund would not be subject to funding cuts in the event of a revenue shortfall, and unlike the current set of higher education appropriations, could not fall victim to political expediency. The state of Michigan should isolate higher education funding from the whims of the business cycle and general fund budgeting pressures and ensure steady appropriations to state colleges and universities. Higher education should not be treated as another discretionary expense, but as an investment in the future.
Last week, a day after the budget deal was announced, University President Mary Sue Coleman went before the state House Higher Education Subcommittee in protest of the budget cuts. In her testimony, Coleman told committee members about the numerous measures that the University has taken to stay afloat in the midst of its tight financial situation. These cost-saving moves include the elimination of vacant faculty posts and canceled subscriptions to scholarly journals. Class sizes have increased and a number of core courses cut. The quality of the University’s education, Coleman pleaded, has taken a hit.
Beyond damaging the quality of education, state budget cuts have changed the character of the University. For many, the funding cuts have catalyzed the further privatization of the University, which has gradually been forced to rely more heavily on nondiscretionary donations from alumni and other outside sources. While any additional money helps, private donations are typically directed toward a single program and often come with their share of strings — usually doing little to aid the overall educational experience. Forced to scrounge for cash, the University will likely squeeze as much as possible out of student tuition. This means disproportionately tapping out-of-state students and likely neglecting financial aid programs vital to sustaining diversity and academic opportunity. Already, the University is disproportionately wealthy when compared to the general population. An excessively high tuition barrier and limited financial support will only exacerbate this trend.
The new round of budget cuts will only make matters worse, and it is good to see that Coleman is fighting to stop them. By going to Lansing to talk first hand with legislators on behalf of the University and by working with the Cherry Commission, Coleman has shown that she sincerely cares about the future of higher education. Unfortunately, the University Board of Regents has been silent. None of the regents attended Coleman’s speech in Lansing to voice their support, and thus far, few tangible gains have been seen from their lobbying efforts in Lansing.
Being a regent for the University entails more than showing up in Ann Arbor once a month for a vote. As elected officials and prominent members of their communities, regents should be highly visible players in state politics, and the University’s concerns should never fall on deaf ears. Whatever their reasons are, University regents have done little to stop Lansing’s decision to strip $50 million in funding from public education over the past three years. They have also failed to work with or support Coleman in maintaining the superior educational opportunities that the University strives to create — and that they are charged to protect. If the regents do not step up to the plate and form a unified front with Coleman, the University risks becoming increasingly private — open only to affluent students with the economic means to afford the soaring tuition costs.