More Students; Shrinking Funds

September 3, 2008
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WEST MICHIGAN — As the new academic year gets underway for West Michigan’s colleges and universities, public campuses are adjusting to a financial reality that includes rising tuitions but less dough from state coffers.

With state support — now dead-last among the 50 states — rising a scant 1 percent this year, colleges are relying more and more on students and parents to pay the bills at a time when enrollments, public and private, are hitting record highs.

Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas said the college’s 13 percent tuition hike still puts it $400 below the average state tuition, ranking it 14th out 15 public universities.

“At the end of the day, students and families are still choosing GVSU in record numbers because of the value they see coming out of the experience,” said Haas, who also heads the Presidents’ Council of state public university presidents.

“I don’t think it’s fair for our students and their families to take the brunt of poor fiscal and educational policy from the state, but that’s what I am faced with, so I want to make sure we can keep our costs down as low as we can and at the same time providing substantial financial aid.”

GVSU has removed 300 prerequisites, Haas said, to help students complete degrees within four years, another way to tamp down the cost of higher education.

Statistics show that GVSU, established in 1960, has become ingrained in the West Michigan economy. In the 2007-08 academic year, GVSU drew nearly half of its students from Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties. Haas told the board of trustees in a report last spring that while 24 percent of GVSU graduates attend graduate school, 74 percent go directly into the work force, and 80 percent of those are employed in West Michigan.

“Grand Valley has to be responsible and flexible as to the needs of the region,” Haas said. “One of my themes, when I get out there as chairman of the Presidents’ Council the next two years, is to say (that) in terms of looking at the new economy and the transition, we need to look at different models and engage in the business community as we develop the work force of the future.”

GVSU started classes last week, as did private schools Aquinas College, Cornerstone University and Hope College. Davenport University, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Western Michigan University launch semesters this week, while Calvin College opens classrooms next week.

Haas said that ruing the status of state support under the current funding system is like crying over spilled milk.

“The general state of state support is 50th out of 50 states and going down,” he said. “There is no rational or sustainable approach to how the state funds higher education. In my mind, we have to look at different models. The state is just not going to be there. We are going to have to be there.”

Haas offered tentative support to alternatives such as the approach espoused by state Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, which would base college funding on enrollments and graduate rates.

“We in higher education here in Michigan have to look maybe at different models, because the state is not going to be there and we’re going to have to look at other means to get us through these next years. I’m in favor of taking a look at Wayne’s proposals and others where we could put some rationality into how the state apportions its scarce dollars to universities,” Haas said. “His fundamental premise is right on with mine, that we need to ensure affordability and access, and we need to develop a work force of the future.”

Grand Rapids Community College is committed to work-force development, Interim President Anne E. Mulder said. She pointed to GRCC’s speedy response to a request to provide training for the new Priceline.com call-in center in Wyoming.

“We were able to respond quickly. We had to come up with the computers, we had to come up with the space in a very rapid period of time,” Mulder said. “That makes it particularly attractive to the corporate sector here, as they are going to look for persons that can respond quickly to the kinds of training needs that they see. We are being brought along as a partner in those kinds of discussions.”

Last year, GRCC had more than 15,000 students in credit-seeking programs and reached another 9,000 with other programs, according to an institutional report. About three-quarters of students live within the borders of the Kent Intermediate School District. Mulder said she expects similar enrollment trends this year. 

“One of the challenges, and I’ll be very honest with you, is that we see some students who have some serious deficiencies that we have to do a tremendous amount of developmental work with,” Mulder added. “We have not always been given the resources to do that. But we are committed to making that happen. … As a civilized society, we have to find ways to address that. And if adults come to us lacking the skills, then we can’t say, ‘Oh, so sorry, there’s nothing for you.’ We are morally obligated to come up with solutions to that. I don’t think it’s important to go back and blame anybody, I just think it’s important to do the job.”

At Ferris State University, growing enrollment has residence halls packed with 300 more students than last year.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve been the fastest growing public university in Michigan,” said President David Eisler. But FSU also has seen a 27 percent reduction in state funding during that time period. “The state doesn’t fund enrollment increases. That’s something I find most people in the public don’t understand.

“It’s a mind-boggling approach to have the state say the future of the state is dependent on our public universities, yet it doesn’t fund enrollment growth.”

Still, Eisler is optimistic that state funding is in the offing for a new optometry building, which would be another crown in FSU’s effort to modernize its facilities. Some 75 classrooms have been renovated so far with new technology and adaptable furniture, Eisler said.

According to the Ferris State University Fact Book for 2007-08, last year’s enrollment of 13,087 was 94 percent Michigan residents, and the biggest supplier of students was Kent County, at 1,825, or 14 percent of total enrollment. In Grand Rapids, FSU hosts the Kendall College of Art & Design as well as sharing the Applied Technology Center with GRCC.

“We’ve worked very, very hard to be good stewards, to keep costs down,” Eisler added. “The simple reality is, Michigan has transitioned the cost of public education from the state to students, and that’s unfortunate.”

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