Presidents chime in on college funding cuts

August 26, 2011
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For the past 10 fiscal years, Michigan lawmakers have reduced funding for higher education.

In 2002, the state’s public colleges and universities received $1.6 billion for operations. In the upcoming fiscal year, the same schools will get $1.2 billion — marking a drop of $400 million over that period. But the biggest reduction, $222 million, starts in October. It’s a 15 percent cut in funding from 2011 that was approved by the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Business Journal asked a few college presidents to share their feelings about the direction state funding has taken.

Western Michigan University President John Dunn said the state reductions have shifted the cost of a college degree to families and students through escalating tuition and fees.

“Sadly, today Michigan ranks last among all 50 states in its support for higher education. This fundamental shift in cost, a tax burden for a select few if you may, has occurred at a time when the state has moved increasingly from a manufacturing state to one that requires a highly educated work force with technical skills to attract and retain new companies and new industries. States that invest in higher education are the leaders today in job creation and family income,” wrote Dunn in an e-mail.

“Michigan must continue to expect great things from its universities, including measures of accountability. It is also incumbent on us as a state, as a people, to ensure that Michigan does its part to enhance funding in a way that maintains access and reduces the financial burden on our students and families,” said Dunn.

WMU will lose $16 million in state funding in the coming fiscal year compared to this year. But not all of the financial news is bad for Western. The Michigan Strategic Fund announced last month that it will invest an additional $3.8 million in WMU’s Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center, which has played a critical role in creating 30 Michigan companies and more than 200 high-paying jobs since its inception in 2003.

“Three years ago, when we began looking at the resources this community has in place to launch a medical school, the BRCC already had established a track record for supporting life science research that leads to important innovation and economic development. The potential for even greater synergy and economic development is one that we’re focusing on as we move forward,” said Dunn.

Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas told the Business Journal that funding for higher education is the most important decision state lawmakers have to make annually because healthy public universities are essential to Michigan’s future.

“College graduates hold better jobs, earn more, pay more taxes and experience less unemployment. Think you or your family will ever need a teacher, nurse, accountant, engineer, or police officer? You get the idea. Universities are worthy of more taxpayer support than they presently receive. State funding is just 14 percent of Grand Valley’s total revenue. Thirty years ago, that number was 75 percent. Michigan’s families deserve better,” wrote Haas in an e-mail.

“Now the hard question: How should the state divide additional funding among its universities? Changes in enrollment should be counted: more students, more aid; fewer students, less aid. Expensive degrees (like engineering and health professions) and research should get more support. And campuses that perform well and whose graduates stay here should be rewarded for good results,” said Haas.

The latest reduction will cost GVSU $13 million, as the university’s state funding will drop from $61 million in 2011 to $48 million in 2012. The school sees that decline as a 22 percent reduction, its largest one-year cut in its history, and not the 15 percent drop that Lansing has labeled it because GVSU feels it is a permanent reduction.

The per-student funding the university will receive in 2012 is slightly more than $2,100, the amount Grand Valley received in 1978.

But GVSU closed out its 50th anniversary in June on a very high note. Its first comprehensive campaign, Shaping Our Future, greatly surpassed its goal of $50 million by raising $95.3 million from 17,000 donors. That money will help fund the Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons, the L. William Seidman Center and other capital projects, academic programs, centers and endowed chairs, and more than 90 new private scholarships.

“The generous support for Grand Valley will positively impact many areas of the university, and have a broad economic impact for West Michigan,” said Haas. “Shaping Our Future touches so many areas of Grand Valley, but most importantly, more students will be able to reach their full potential. We will be able to attract a broader range of students to West Michigan and, as graduates, they will be our future leaders in their communities and vocations.”

The Business Journal also asked for an official from Grand Rapids Community College to respond to the state funding issue, but didn’t receive a reply. State lawmakers and Snyder decided to maintain overall funding for community colleges in 2012 at the 2011 level, which is $296 million. GRCC will receive $17.2 million from the state for 2012.

Muskegon Community College will receive $8.5 million, which is still less than the college received for 2011 from the state. “After considerable debate and competing proposals, Muskegon Community College received a modest 4.2 percent reduction in state funding,” said MCC President Dale Nesbary, “less than the 15 percent cut initially approved by the state House.”

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