One might not expect the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan’s own far-right free-market think tank, to care much for economic equality. A plan the Mackinac Center recently proposed, however, seeks to equalize state funding per student at all public universities in Michigan. The legislation is ostensibly meant to make higher education funding more transparent. Its main effect, however, would be to harass the state’s research universities for trying to do their jobs – and threaten the University’s status as a world-class research institution.

Sarah Royce

The Mackinac Center’s proposal has begun to gain support in some important quarters. State Rep. John Stewart (R-Plymouth), chair of the state’s House Appropriations Subcommittee for Higher Education, is said to favor the change. So does Central Michigan University President Michael Rao, whose institution receives a third of the per-student spending that this University does.

As for the University, the plan could drive tuition up even higher – by as much as $9,070, according to the biweekly political newspaper Inside Michigan Politics. That would bring in-state tuition to nearly $20,000 – downright absurd for a public institution.

The proposal would allow the state’s research institutions to supplement per-pupil funding by requesting additional money for research graduate education. That stipulation is at the very least an unnecessary hindrance, and it could reduce state funding for the University as well. Furthermore, it could lessen the desirability of research positions at the University by harming the prestige of the University. Top professors and researchers might choose institutions offering more stable funding over a University where research proceeds only at the whim of the state Legislature.

The proposal would allow the state Legislature to withhold additional funding from universities in order to restrict research deemed “wasteful” or programs thought unnecessary. While perhaps appealing, past experience suggests such a provision would encourage political meddling in the University’s affairs. A few years ago, for example, the Republican-dominated state Legislature attempted to shut down an English course that focused on gay male literature. The move was unsuccessful, but University faculty and researchers can only expect to encounter similar obstacles if the Legislature is asked to approve controversial projects such as stem-cell research. The University’s constitutional autonomy may ultimately prevent such direct micromanagement. Still, the specter of the University having to sue the state to force an intrusive Legislature to back off is hardly a happy prospect.

Michigan desperately needs to increase the number of its residents obtaining college degrees, and to do so, it will need to make its universities more affordable. While making the higher education funding process more transparent might make clearer the link between declining state support over recent decades and skyrocketing tuition, the Mackinac Center’s proposal seems a poor approach. At best, it might make less prestigious universities slightly more affordable while forcing research universities to boost their tuition and waste resources dealing with legislative interference. At worst, it could leave the state’s public universities equally mediocre and unpopular – perhaps not an undesirable outcome to a free-market outfit eager to reduce the role of government on all fronts.

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