When the University held its first classes in Ann Arbor in 1841, in-state students did not pay tuition. Almost 200 years later, the University is among the most expensive in the nation, and its annual tuition hike has become a decades-old tradition. A symptom of a state government unwilling to adequately commit itself to education, this tradition continued yet again this year. The state should treat affordable, quality, public universities as an invaluable pillar of a sound economic foundation and halt its draconian cuts to higher education.
On June 17, the Board of Regents approved, by a 6-2 vote, a 1.5 percent tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students, a 3 percent increase for out-of-state undergraduates and a 2.8 percent increase for most graduate programs. For an LSA freshman, that translates to a $178 increase for Michigan residents and a $1,064 increase for nonresidents. It will be the lowest increase since 1984, despite projections from the state Senate Appropriations Committee, which projected a $1.4 million reduction in the amount of support the University would receive from the state government. Citing tough economic times, the Office of the Provost also announced a 10.6 percent increase in the amount of financial aid they expect to administer during the coming school year.
The state’s universities are enormously important mechanisms for economic growth. The combined benefit of Michigan’s three largest research universities (including the University) to the state’s economy exceeded $14 billion last year, according to a report commissioned by the University Research Corridor. That, according to the same report, is a $16 return for every $1 invested by the state government. Higher education is arguably Michigan’s greatest resource and its most important tool for pulling the state out of its economic slump.
Yet despite the huge payoff, according to the Alumni Association, in 2009 the state government’s contribution made up less than 6 percent of the University’s operation budget. That contribution to the University has dropped 100 million inflation-adjusted dollars since fiscal year 2002. The state isn’t just failing to provide the ideal of free education on which it once prided itself. It is slowly reneging its commitment to support higher education at all.
In the absence of more state funding, though, that burden has been passed on to students. And while the University has made both a commendable and necessary commitment to provide an additional $8 million in financial aid this year, the University does not escape all the blame. The administration is curiously debating whether or not to reduce its endowment spending this year, meaning that more money would have to be raised from other revenue sources like tuition. It also continues to embark on expensive building and renovation projects in a fiscal environment that demands austerity and cost containment. Such expenses invariably come on the backs of students who cannot afford to pay higher and higher rates for an education that is increasingly necessary in an extremely difficult job market.
Free is the ideal. Affordable is the baseline expectation. Unobtainable is what the University’s education has become. The state — and the University — must put the “public” back in “public education.”