Published in Talent

Michigan’s public universities make case for greater state investment

BY Sunday, February 17, 2019 05:39pm

The organization that represents Michigan’s 15 public universities hopes the new governor and legislature will raise state financial support for higher education.

In repeating its case for more support, the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU) cites state data showing a greater need in today’s economy for a college education. Of the top 50 high-demand occupations in Michigan, 36 require at least a four-year degree.


“I think it’s a pretty easy argument (and) sales pitch on boosting state investment in higher education,” MASU CEO Dan Hurley said. “I truly believe there is no greater return on taxpayers’ investment than in higher education. The numbers bear it out.”

In a recent media roundtable, Hurley offered an array of data points to support his view, ranging from lower unemployment rates and higher wage growth for people with a college degree, to low rankings for Michigan compared to other states in per-capita funding for higher education.

Although she did not specifically address increased funding for higher education, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week acknowledged issues with talent shortages and college affordability that the state faces. In her first State of the State address, Whitmer set an aggressive goal of having 60 percent of state residents between the ages of 16 and 64 hold some form of postsecondary credential by 2030. As of 2016, 44 percent of residents had earned a degree or some form of skills certification.

“It’s aggressive. But great expectations lead to great results,” Whitmer said. “To get there, we need to start thinking differently about what it takes to succeed. We used to think about careers in terms of ladders. One way up. But today, it’s more like rock-climbing.”

The governor proposed the MI Opportunity Scholarship that would provide two years of community college or tuition assistance at a four-year college for students who graduate high school with at least a B average. She wants to launch the scholarship this spring for students to use in the fall of 2020.

“Together, these paths will go a long way toward closing the skills gap, making Michigan’s economy more competitive, and creating real opportunity for everyone,” Whitmer said. “If you’re willing to put in the work, you will have a path to succeed.”

By The Numbers

In a recent media roundtable, Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Dan Hurley provided a litany of data points to support his view that Michigan needs to increase support for higher education. Among them:

  • Unemployment rates are lowest among college graduates. People with a degree — including a two-year associate degree up to a doctorate — earn more than those without, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Wage growth from 2010 to 2016 was higher for college graduates: 8.5 percent for people with an advanced degree, compared to 0.9 percent for high school graduates.
  • Michigan has an oversupply of people with a high school diploma or less, and an undersupply of people holding a college degree. The state needs 126,521 people with a two-year degree or certification, 171,214 with a bachelor’s degree and 4,000 with graduate degrees.

Whitmer cited a 2018 report that puts the annual average cost at nearly $22,000 to attend a public four-year university in Michigan, the 10th highest in the nation. She called the cost “a complete barrier for a lot of people in our state.”

In a statement following Whitmer’s address, Hurley cited her stated goals of increasing educational attainment, implementing the scholarship fund, and establishing the Michigan Reconnect adult skills training program. He called them “bold and much-needed proposals that will send a message that Michigan is poised to make this necessary commitment in its people, in its employers, and in its future.”

The head of the Michigan College Access Network, which promotes college attainment, also praised the governor’s proposal to “make education a priority for all students by calling for investments in education to address the talent gap.”

“The bottom line is simple: College should be accessible for all. Today’s students need a postsecondary credential to succeed in a 21st century economy,” said MCAN Executive Director Brandy Johnson. “We stand ready to partner with the Governor, her administration, and the state Legislature to implement and support these important initiatives.”

Societal benefits?

MASU also cited data from a 2016 study by economics professors at the University of Maine showing that college graduates, because they earn more, pay more in taxes.

“It’s been said nationally (that) higher education has often served as the balancing wheel for state budgets, and I think that absolutely has been the case here in Michigan,” Hurley said.

States with a high rate of college graduates also spend less on public assistance programs such as unemployment, food stamps, Medicaid, energy assistance and housing subsidies.

“One of the benefits of a higher educated society isn’t just increased earnings. It actually is decreased need for government spending,” Hurley said. “From a fiscally conservative standpoint, to me this makes the strongest argument for investing in higher education.”

What Hurley calls the state’s years-long “disinvestment” in higher education has flipped the ratio of what students paid for an education through tuition and fees.

In 1979, tuition and fees covered 30 percent of the cost and state appropriations paid the remaining 70 percent. As of the state’s 2017 fiscal year, tuition and fees paid by students covered 77 percent of operating revenues for public universities, and the state paid 23 percent.

“There simply has been a cost-shift in who pays for a college education from the state to students,” Hurley said.

Finding funding

As Gov. Whitmer prepares her administration’s first budget proposal, MASU advocates for greater funding to support university operations and for student aid, although Hurley says he is well aware of the competition for funding in other areas of the state budget, particularly for roads.

“We’re hoping for a reinvigorated partnership with the state,” said Hurley, who specifically would like to see the state reinvest in a $50 million competitive scholarship fund available to all college students.

Spending $50 million annually on a scholarship fund for eight years would make Michigan a top 10 state for financial aid to students, he said. The state presently ranks 38th nationally and ninth among 12 states in the Midwest in financial aid per student.

“It’s a big ask, but it would fundamentally change our state in terms of college access and, ultimately, workforce talent,” Hurley said. “We’re right at the very beginning of this process, recognizing that Gov. Whitmer may have her own proposals. This would be one option for her to look at.”

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