It’s been said many times before, and it should be repeated until a solution comes forth — the importance of higher education cannot be understated. The state of Michigan and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder have continued a decade-long trend and significantly cut higher education funding over the past two years. College degrees are critical to strong economies — an educated workforce brings advanced technologies and jobs. A new plan introduced by Michigan Senate Democrats has the potential to help more students afford college educations by subsidizing tuition. The state Legislature should continue exploring the Michigan 2020 plan, and help put higher education within reach of all Michigan residents.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats, including state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D – Ann Arbor) unveiled the Michigan 2020 Plan. Along with proposing an end to many tax loopholes for corporations, the plan gives students who attend public school in Michigan from grades K-12 $9,575 — the median cost of tuition at public colleges in the state — per year for tuition expenses at any of the state’s 15 public universities.

The plan would be administered by the Michigan Department of Education, and implementation would cost an estimated $1.8 billion. The price tag may appear shocking, but its potential benefit to Michigan’s struggling economy exceeds the cost. Michigan’s manufacturing and automotive markets have proven unable to sustain jobs. As the country moves toward a knowledge-based economy, Michigan must move away from a manufacturing-based economy. Investing in students now will increase the state’s competitiveness in emerging, lucrative fields in the future.

A smaller-scale version of the plan, paying for two years of tuition would cost significantly less — an estimated $618 million. Only subsidizing half of a degree, however, would be detrimental to a student’s education and hinder Michigan 2020’s success. A student would have far less incentive to finish a degree knowing state aid would cease after two years.

The proposal is based on the Kalamazoo Promise, a privately financed tuition fund for public school students entering its sixth year in Kalamazoo, Mich. Michigan 2020 follows the same basic structure as the Promise, which has seen impressive results. Nearly 90 percent of eligible students have enrolled in college. That number greatly contrasts the 52 percent of non-eligible Kalamazoo students enrolled. Clearly, financial support allows more students to attain higher education, and the benefit of this to Michigan’s economy will be seen in the long run.

Last year, the state’s funding to the University was cut by 15 percent, and state funding has also dropped by 30 percent over the past 10 years. The cuts in public funding have forced tuition increases, making higher education less accessible to all.

Michigan should be focusing on higher education, not continuously cutting public funds to colleges. The state is ranked 42nd among states on per capita higher education spending. That ranking is unacceptable. It worsens the state’s brain drain as educated residents leave for other states because few jobs opportunities exist in advanced fields here, and it creates a workforce unprepared for the future.

Michigan’s responsibility to its students shouldn’t end after high school graduation. The state, the University and the federal government need to refocus on making higher education accessible. Despite high costs, the Michigan 2020 plan puts students on the right path.

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