March 10, 2013/Detroit Free Press
By Patrick Doyle and Doug Rothwell
Michigan's economy is rebounding faster than most other states', but businesses here won't be able to get the high-skilled workers they need unless we commit to making higher education more affordable for more students.
That's true even though data show that Michigan's public universities, as a group, confer the fifth-highest number of degrees and certificates among all states. Even more impressive, Michigan produces the fourth-highest number of degrees and certificates in critical skills areas, including math, science, engineering and technology -- degrees that are needed to fill the high-paying, in-demand jobs that will help Michigan become a top-10 state for job, economic and personal income growth.
A recent study produced by Anderson Economic Group for the University Research Corridor showed that, alone, those three universities -- Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University -- conferred 31,683 graduate and undergraduate degrees in 2011. More than half of those students graduating in 2011 received degrees in high-tech, high-demand and medical fields.
That's an enviable record, and one that puts Michigan's URC schools ahead of the six university innovation clusters, including those in North Carolina and Massachusetts, the URC has benchmarked itself against since 2007, according to the sixth annual URC Economic Impact Report.
But it's not enough to keep Michigan competitive in the future. Michigan is projected to need about 1 million college graduates in the next decade, yet only a quarter of Michigan adults over age 24 held a bachelor's degree or higher in 2008, the most recent data available.
The state has dropped its financial support for higher education by 50% over the last decade when inflation is taken into account, causing tuition to nearly double and forcing many students to take on more debt. We tell our children they need to get a college degree to succeed, yet we're pricing college out of reach of many of them.
The opposite tack has been taken by North Carolina, whose population, per-capita income and overall state spending are nearly identical to Michigan's. North Carolina now spends $2.5 billion to support its higher education system; Michigan spends just $1.1 billion.
The result has been much lower costs for tuition and fees in North Carolina, where a family spends $20,000 less over four years educating a child than a Michigan family spends. North Carolina has made college affordable while Michigan has made it more expensive, shifting the cost from the state to students and their families. That needs to change.
Policymakers have been trying to reverse course. The state's universities have agreed to be measured against metrics based on outcomes. Champions in the Michigan Legislature such as Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, have pushed for more funding for the universities if they are efficiently producing the talent pool the state needs and making it more financially accessible for Michigan families.
As a result, last year's higher education budget reflected an increase in higher education funding, and this year's proposed budget continues that trend. While this is positive news, we know there is still more to be done to ensure adequate funding and to truly assist Michigan families.
Business Leaders for Michigan supports increasing funding for universities based on how they perform against their peers nationally. Recently, we launched the Performance Tracker for Public Universities, which allows policymakers, parents and students to evaluate our public universities relative to their peers nationally.
This new tool and the URC's Economic Impact Report show that our public universities stack up well to universities nationally and contribute significantly to our economy.
Word is getting out that, if they want the brightest minds in engineering, biomedicine and alternative energy, businesses need to be in Michigan. Our public universities are committed to producing tens of thousands of graduates in high-demand fields for those businesses to hire, but they can't do it alone. Greater financial commitment must come from the state.
J. Patrick Doyle is president and CEO of Domino's Pizza and chairs Business Leaders for Michigan's task force on higher education. Doug Rothwell is president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan