Business leaders back higher education funding

May 3, 2012
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Business Leaders for Michigan is sponsoring a summit in Lansing next week, focusing on the specific issues fast becoming an unwanted legacy for the Michigan education community and its current and future students.

That business leaders from across the state will convene in Lansing is telling in itself. So, too, is the fact that BLM will draw those business leaders even from outside its membership. Since adopting education last year as one of its key agenda items to rebuild the Michigan economy, the group has been tenacious in its pursuit of real and specific change from the state’s legislators. Those efforts must be supported, sooner than later, especially as skilled work force recruitment issues now affect all businesses in the state.

The insanity of continued cuts in education prompted Business Leaders for Michigan to decry the disinvestment during testimony to legislators early this year, telling state leaders: “This fiscal year, Michigan will spend 76 percent more general fund dollars on prisons than we will on universities. Our public universities are a major driver of Michigan’s economy. This investment strategy is upside down if we want to attract business investment and good-paying jobs.”

The education budget passed late last week continues that 10-year legacy.

BLM has warned that cost shifting has been exhausted, but the group also looked for some path of assistance. Using studies from North Carolina and North Dakota, BLM is suggesting a plan to aggressively increase the number of out-of-state students, accomplishing two objectives: leveraging the national and international recognition already established by Michigan’s research universities to develop a “higher education marketplace,” and protect in-state resident students, in part, by recruiting those who would pay out-of-state tuition. Steelcase President and CEO Jim Hackett (who is facilitating one of the BLM panels next week) noted in the Business Journal story this week that the only way to protect resident students from super-inflated tuition is to balance it with the out-of-state tuition.

Even prior to the budget votes last week, the BLM study group noted that it will take more than 10 years to restore funding for colleges and universities to the level necessary to avoid serious disruption in the education of Michigan’s student population, and a less educated talent pool.

BLM is not focused solely on college and university funding issues and strategies; business leaders also are gravely concerned about K-12 funding. Hackett notes that successful college graduates also need assurances that the talent pool will be renewed by K-12 education, assuring their future business success.

Hackett noted, “We can’t be cutting our future” because of “short-term budget realities,” and he added that the higher ed cutting was “going on long before the financial crisis” hit Michigan’s state government. “It frustrates me deeply that the legislature is losing track” of what it takes to compete in the new knowledge-based industries, and the reasons the universities need to be supported. “If you are producing knowledge workers for the future industries, you have a shot at competing,” he said.

The change must begin immediately.

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