Economic Development and Higher Education

University presidents want more state aid

Proposal would provide 'talented' students with up to $6,000 toward tuition.

March 1, 2019
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Education leaders in the state are working to develop a proposal to increase Michigan’s direct-to-student need-based financial aid.

The proposal would provide “talented” students from families making up to $80,000 with up to $6,000 toward tuition at any institution in the state, according to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, who is heading the proposal.

Michigan is at the very bottom compared to others regarding this type of aid, at an average of about $250, compared to California’s average of about $10,000.

The idea is being discussed internally at the Michigan Association of State Universities and with Business Leaders for Michigan, legislators and the governor, he said.

Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas said he supports the proposal and testified with Schlissel last month, regarding education and funding issues, in front of the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

Schlissel said the idea is independent of yet similar to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s scholarship program proposed during the State of the State address, which would provide two years of tuition assistance to students pursuing four-year degrees.

Haas said they will wait to see the proposed 2019-20 budget and then push forth accordingly.

“As Gov. Whitmer says, ‘Fix the damn roads.’ I'm telling you, we need to fix the educational system so that we have the talent necessary for the generation ahead,” Haas said, regarding the entire education system, from kindergarten through college.

“Our bridges to the future are going to be broken, and we have a hell of a lot of potholes.”

While BLM has been engaged in the discussions and generally supports increasing financial aid, the organization has not yet backed any specific proposal, according to Anna Heaton, BLM vice president of marketing and communications.

Rising tuition costs

The proposed aid increase is meant to combat years of tuition increases that price many students out of higher education or leave others in debt, Schlissel said.

Data from the state show a $254-million decrease in state funding of higher education over the past 10 years, to nearly $1.52 billion.

Haas noted the state of Michigan provided about 90 percent of public universities’ revenue in the 1960s. Now, he said GVSU receives 17 percent of its funding from the state and 83 percent from tuition. He said the number of students is not counted in funding consideration, so even though the amount of GVSU students is increasing, appropriation goes down.

This “shift in the obligation from the state” means degrees become treated more as consumables than as a public good, Haas said.

“The reason why tuition is so high today is because the state has cut its obligation,” he added.

Investing in talent

Schlissel said the proposal is all about investing in the state’s talent, which business and education leaders highlight as a top issue impeding Michigan’s competitiveness and economic growth.

He cited 2016 U.S. data that shows a correlation between states’ ranks in per capita income and college attainment. Michigan’s ranks in 2016 were 30 and 35, respectively.

A study from the University of Maine showed the total public fiscal impact of someone with a bachelor’s degree is estimated at $381,051, compared to $25,938 for those with high school diplomas alone.

“It might be time for a greater investment in higher education. We can't expect to be the top tier state and drive a successful venture unless we find ways to educate more students in school,” Schlissel said.

“You get what you pay for. We have to try to reverse this notion that successful government is government that doesn't tax and doesn’t spend.”

Changing jobs

At the University of Michigan, Schlissel said about 2,700 in-state students get enough aid to cover tuition, and the university offers aid to students — depending on individual circumstances — from families making up to $180,000 per year. He said about 70 percent of students graduate owing a little over $20,000.

That amount of debt — comparing it to the size of a car loan — is worth the investment if it leads to a higher-paying job, Schlissel said.

While Haas and Schlissel said degrees are not needed for many jobs, they agreed the majority of careers — including those related to business and technology — will increasingly require a college education. Depending, that may be a two-year or four-year degree, Haas added. They also noted the importance of critical thinking and soft skills gained in college.

Freezing what someone knows and understands after high school graduation is the consequence of not pursuing secondary education, Schlissel said, which becomes a growing problem with increasing strength of technology.

“Unfortunately, our country as a whole is not doing a great job preparing for this future,” Schlissel said.

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