Predictions of possible state budget cuts and reduced education funding combined with high increases in tuition at Michigan public colleges have generated funding concerns for both universities and students. A new legislative proposal to address the tuition problem includes strict tuition caps at or below the level of inflation. On one hand, this would be good, because it would keep tuition rates from rising, but it would also limit the budgets of public universities. Much of the current concerns about tuition stems from years of state government neglect of higher education.

Students and officials at Michigan”s public universities perked up when the news about Central Michigan University”s massive tuition increase of 28 percent came in December. According to Central Michigan officials, the reason for the hikes is a combination of economic downturn and insufficient state aid. Central Michigan is not alone: Michigan public colleges raised rates last year by an average of 11 percent. The University of Michigan raised tuition last year by 6.5 percent, even with a state funding increase of 1.5 percent. State legislators are discussing further cuts in the education budget due to the recession.

Responding to the news about Central Michigan”s tuition hike, Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus proposed a constitutional amendment that would cap annual tuition increases at the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lower. Most officials think this is extreme and that it would be detrimental to the quality of education, but nearly all agree that something needs to be done about tuition. Some observers are especially concerned about the Central Michigan”s case, alleging that the budget shortage there was primarily due to poor fiscal policy. Undoubtedly, universities must be careful in their spending policies, especially during periods of economic instability. But fiscal mismanagement is not the true cause of tuition hikes.

This issue signifies a historic shortage in state education funding. Education must be a funding priority for the state legislature, even in times of recession, since education is an investment in the economy. The state must prioritize its budget so as to ensure that higher education remains well funded, even when the economy slows down.

It is clear that the recent tuition boosts have been excessive. They tend to further separate the class of people who can afford college tuition from those that cannot. College tuitions in the U.S. are far higher than those in Europe where tuition is seldom higher than the equivalent of a few thousand dollars and in several nations, such as France and Germany, colleges are free. The high tuitions in the U.S. are one of the biggest reasons for the significantly wider income gap here. Government officials as well as the University should be attentive to these very serious concerns.

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