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Sunday, 22 December 2013 21:23

Higher education roundtable: University presidents say funding cuts can’t continue

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Tom Haas Tom Haas

Politicians and economic developers in Michigan want to make sure that the state has an educated workforce, but the leaders of universities in West Michigan said they are not getting the financial support they need to make this a reality.

University presidents say the impact of this decrease in state funding is felt most acutely by students seeking advanced degrees to get ahead. Without financial support from the state, these leaders say it will become increasingly difficult for students and their families to pay the cost of a higher education without racking up a huge amount of debt.

Participating in the MiBiz higher education roundtable were:

  • John Dunn, president of Western Michigan University
  • Tom Haas, president of Grand Valley State University
  • Rick Pappas, president of Davenport University

Here are some highlights from the discussion.

What does the state funding picture look like for 2014?

Haas: We are a fundamentally tuition-driven institution. … The reality of the disinvestments the state has made in public education (puts) the real impact on the students. … Grand Valley has kept its costs flat with inflation (but) there’s a direct correlation between state funding and tuition. And there’s also a direct correlation with the decrease in state appropriation and the debt load going up for students. I look for status quo from the state in providing resources to its universities.

Last year, 1.7 percent of the budget for public universities went towards performance funding based on metrics … but well over $1.2 billion is allocated for whatever you got in the past with no performance metrics associated with it. Without revising the way appropriations are deployed, even the best ideas are not going to be evident and lead to any change.

Dunn: I think one thing we are all somewhat disappointed about is that two years ago, Governor Snyder’s budget for higher education was reduced by 15 percent. He thought we would be able to begin to restore what was lost, but that restoration has been very little and very slow. This state has disinvested itself of any financial aid or support of any magnitude for students. We are on our own. It’s really distressing and disappointing trying to be compliant with tuition increases when we still get no support.

Haas: The myth perpetuated in public and by many in Lansing is that our administrative costs are well out of line. Our administrative costs are flat or below inflation. We are at about 11 percent in administrative costs and the rest is going to programming. … Tuition in most cases is up because of the disinvestment policy the state has taken over the last few decades. … There’s no priority in higher education.

Dunn: When you compare us to North Carolina, which is a similar size with similar demographics, the amount of money North Carolina puts into higher education by contrast to Michigan is by a factor of two.

Talent has been a headache for employers across the state and a key focus over Gov. Rick Snyder’s first term in office. What’s the role of higher education in helping create the talent to match the needs of employers?

Pappas: We have a coalition of colleges and universities that are trying to create more talent. One of the things we’re doing at Davenport is understanding where the careers are coming from. We talk about talent, increasing talent to where employers’ needs are, and we are all spending time trying to do this. We are trying to share with all higher ed institutions where the demand is going. We actually meet quarterly and we talk about higher education and talent, connected to where the employers’ needs are. We’re all spending time doing that. We’ve created 10 new degrees at Davenport all related to high-demand (jobs). Our graduation and retention rates are increasing. We are connecting students to the kinds of challenging jobs out there.

Dunn: We develop talent in response to industry need. There’s also another part, and that is responding to employees already in the market. We offer courses in graduate programs within departments. … Newell Rubbermaid is locating (a design facility) in our research park and they’re going to attract talent and we’re going to help develop and provide that talent.

Haas: The number of 18-year-olds in the state is decreasing and the continuum and qualifications to come in to college is also a diminishing pool of folks. We need talent and we need to invest. Why aren’t we investing like Virginia, North Carolina or Ohio? Those questions are best asked of our policy makers. The rhetoric is not following through in supporting the public good. Degrees from universities are critically important.

What kinds of capital projects do you have planned for 2014?

Dunn: We’ve invested quite a bit in residential living on campus, which has become available during the last two summers. We have two new facilities on campus that were finished through auxiliary funds, not through the state. We also have a desired goal to expand our aviation school in response to a critical need. That expansion would make a huge difference in the preparation of pilots and people who manage and maintain our airports and air traffic controllers. ...The aviation expansion is needed to replace an aging population of air traffic controllers. We are funding other projects through auxiliary funds.

Pappas: We developed a new physical therapy program for a doctorate, and we have an occupational therapy program for a master’s. We also did a new baseball, tennis and football complex with none of that funding coming from the state.

Dunn: We are opening our medical school next fall and putting $69 million in to renovate a facility downtown. That’s a major gift to the state of Michigan. We’re not asking for or receiving any money from the state. There’s this whole idea of how much we take and how much we give, (but) our investment in higher education speaks for itself. Then we bring other great opportunities to the state through innovation and philanthropy. It’s important that people in the state recognize it. There are times when we get whopped pretty hard.

Haas: This past year has been a watershed year for us. We opened the Pew Library and that was done with philanthropic support, which is a game-changer. The Seidman Center downtown is another very creative way that we got private funding. We did not get any state funding for this project. There was not one increase in tuition dollars to do this. … There’s the reuse of the old library in Allendale, which is becoming a biology lab building for the flow of undergraduates into health professions. I’m turning away literally hundreds and hundreds of qualified people. We want to create that capacity to help the region.

What new programs or curriculum are you planning?

Pappas: In the last three years, we introduced 10 programs that are all tied to the market. The most recent one we just added was a Master of Informatics and Coding. One of the things we’re trying to do is really focus on the highest-demand careers. We also have the College of Urban Education, and we are working with area schools to pilot this curriculum.

Haas: All of our investments are driven by programmatic needs. What we’re doing is really devoting our planning toward curriculum. Since the 1980s, we’ve invested more than $250 million in Grand Rapids alone. It took 25 to 30 years to get where we are now. When we look at that property on the north side of the expressway (which GVSU acquired for future expansions of its health programs) we’re looking at where market is. When I look at the applications and qualifications of students applying for our health-related programs, they are qualified and we would take them if we had the space. We have about 3,000 students enrolled in some of these health and nursing programs and we could increase that overnight. We are also bringing on board Speech and Language Pathology. We’re going to look to be responsive to the needs of the community, making sure what we do is strategic and needed.

Dunn: One of the challenges for us is that we offer the most extensive range of programs available in any public institution in Michigan. We have an affiliation with Cooley Law School because we have to think differently about relationships that will benefit students. … One of the big shifts in higher ed is a much greater focus on the student. While there’s always going to be market-driven competition, we need to keep an eye on the student because it really is all about the students at the end of the day.

What is your message to Michigan’s business leaders?

Pappas: We are a major contributor to talent and by their sharing what degrees they need and their employment needs, we can fill those needs. Soft skills like critical thinking and global competencies are important. Our goal is to have an electronic portfolio for each student before they graduate that demonstrates their skills. We’re working on cooperating and bringing business leaders with us.

Dunn: There’s a benefit and a need for talent development. We’re not difficult to work with. We use the creative talent of our faculty and students to address real problems. You’re going to have to become much stronger in your advocacy for higher education. We need you to be a loud voice in telling Gov. Snyder that we need help and we cannot continue to disinvest in higher education.

Haas: The business community knows Michigan talent is important to their needs. … We need to demonstrate to the public and our state leaders that we have policies and that there is value in that degree. … I think the business community in partnership with higher education can really increase the talent pool. When the business community is stating that you are producing answers to their needs and wants, that goes a long way to credibility. We need to make use of our base dollars and invest where we want to have the greatest impact. There is an analogy I make between the road construction in Michigan and investment in higher education: If you don’t like the roads right now in Michigan and you don’t invest in their improvement, just wait for the potholes.

Read 2523 times Last modified on Sunday, 22 December 2013 21:28
Jane C. Simons

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jsimons@mibiz.com

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