After more than five years of speculation, it’s official: Michigan State University will soon begin construction of a new medical school in Grand Rapids. In an uncommon approach, however, the project will rely entirely on private funding, to the tune of $70 million. But while the venture holds promise for Michigan’s economy, projects like this one are rare. The project underscores serious concerns about the future of education in Michigan because the focus of state funding remains far off the mark.

Sarah Royce

The new Secchia Center, named after former MSU alum and ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia, is an unprecedented achievement in how much can be done with private donations alone. Secchia himself will donate $20 million, Richard DeVos’s Spectrum Health will drop $35 million and the privately-owned Van Andel Institute has pledged another $16 million for research.

The seven-story facility will be constructed in downtown Grand Rapids and will boast state-of-the-art research and teaching facilities. More importantly, the project promises to double MSU’s medical school enrollment. Starting in 2010, the Grand Rapids campus will admit 100 students per year with another 100 entering the East Lansing campus. With demand for medical professionals on the rise and most schools hesitant to increase enrollment, the center should help to fulfill a pressing need.

The project will also help buoy Michigan’s staggering economy. Having a new medical school in the area will bring intelligent and educated people into the state. Better yet, there is a good chance that they will choose to stay in Michigan even after they graduate (yes, despite the inclement weather). After all, just under half of medical school graduates choose to practice in the state in which they graduate. That means that a significant number of skilled medical professionals will choose to remain in Michigan. How can that be bad?

Unfortunately, this success story is not altogether common. The fact of the matter is that Michigan does not have many more Secchias or Van Andels to bail the state out of its economic difficulties. These tycoons aren’t going to be around forever, and even if they were, occasional philanthropic donations are simply not sufficient to rejuvenate the economy or sustain a viable educational system. Ultimately, that responsibility rests with the state legislature. Regrettably, while legislators have been eager to boast their support of a new knowledge-based economy, they have been reluctant to support higher education with the one thing that matters – money. In fact, when spending cuts need to be made, public universities are all too often the first victims.

If the politicians in Lansing are serious about fixing the state’s economic situation and advancing higher education, they need to support universities by providing additional funding. Expanding higher education in the state is the best way to train the sort of individuals who could drive a recovery of our struggling economy. While the construction of this new school holds a great deal of promise, its reliance on private funding is a testament to the legislature’s failure.

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