Education advocates grapple with ‘disturbing’ higher ed budget

Beaumont Tower, Michigan State University | Susan J. Demas

As Republican legislators and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continue to battle over the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, key interest groups want to see a paradigm shift in how Michigan prioritizes higher education funding. 

A generation ago, Michigan, like other states, funded the vast majority of its state universities as a means of keeping college affordable. Now students and families fund about three-quarters of revenue for Michigan’s public universities as state support has dwindled, according to figures from the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU). 

Michigan ranks 36th in the country in terms of postsecondary educational attainment and Whitmer has called for an attainment level of 60% by 2030.

Whitmer’s budget pitch to reluctant Republicans: Pay now or pay more later

To help meet that goal, Whitmer, a first-term Democratic governor, proposed a 3%, $45.6 million increase for the state’s 15 public universities during her initial budget presentation back in March. But GOP counterproposals that passed the Legislature last month came in far short of that recommendation. 

“I’ve listened to business owners across the state and the most resounding concern is finding top talent,” Whitmer said in a statement earlier this month.

“I have also talked to families, and they are worried about how to pay for their children to go to college. The skills gap and college affordability pose serious challenges, and my ‘60 by 30’ plan makes a critical connection between furthering the education of Michigan’s residents and our state’s economic vitality,” Whitmer said. “If residents are willing to put in the work, they should have a path to earn a postsecondary credential and build a life here in Michigan.”

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Accumulated student loan debt in the United States now stands at $1.5 trillion, according to Forbes. Student loan debt in Michigan has reportedly more than doubled since 2007.

GOP budget proposals that cleared the House and Senate fall far short of Whitmer’s proposal, however. The Senate’s budget would increase higher education funding by 1%, while the House proposed an increase of just .4%. 

Dan Hurley

The governor must sign a budget by Sept. 30 in order to avert a partial government shutdown. 

MASU CEO Dan Hurley referred to the meager increase proposed by the state House as “nothing short of disturbing,” during an interview last week. 

In an email, House GOP spokesman Gideon D’Assandro defended the caucus’ higher education budget, writing that the topic remains one of several leading priorities. 

“The House budget made smart reductions in many areas to free up existing funding and waste for the state’s top priorities,” D’Assandro wrote. “Higher education is one of those areas that received an increase, even while belts were being tightened elsewhere because it is a priority to keep funding strong for Michigan’s colleges and universities.”

Tim Sowton, vice president of government affairs and public policy for the group Business Leaders for Michigan, said he believes “we [as a state] can do better,” with funding for higher education. He noted that if the Legislature and governor can find a permanent solution for the state’s road-funding woes, that should free up money for other priorities like higher education. 

Tim Sowton

“Over the last several years, a considerable amount of General Fund dollars have gone to help pay for the roads,” Sowton said. “As the Legislature now looks for a permanent solution for our road funding dollars, that is critical. If we get the right solution there that should free up future growth in the general fund to start investing even more in our public universities again.”

What worries Hurley with the MASU, however, is that Michigan has been on a general economic upswing since around 2010. Traditionally, higher education enrollment suffers during positive economic times as jobs are plentiful and then bounces back during downturns. 

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“I ask the rhetorical question: If these are the good economic times and the Legislature is looking at a .5% increase to a 1% increase in support of universities, what does that say about state lawmakers’ priority for college affordability and for our state’s future talent pool?” Hurley said. 

Meanwhile, employment growth through 2026 in high wage sectors like health care, software development and industrial and mechanical engineering — which all generally require a bachelor’s degree or more — is expected to be around 10,000 jobs, according to a 2018 state forecast. 

While Whitmer has pushed her higher education attainment goals, she’s also followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, in pushing for more skilled skilled trades training. That can lead to in-demand careers which might only need a certificate that can be earned for much less money than a four-year degree. 

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Hurley acknowledged that there’s a large demand for skilled trades workers in manufacturing and construction. But he pointed to the state’s own forecasts on college-educated job growth as a signal to legislators and others that they need to step up on higher education funding. 

“When you look at the labor market demand through 2026 … we’re encouraging … that if you earn a four-year degree, you’re going to have much greater economic security [with a degree] based on decades of experience and based on the state’s forecast for talent needs,” Hurley said.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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