November 13, 2011/Detroit Free Press
By Mary Sue Coleman, President
Phil Hanlon, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Despite the state's substantial cuts to higher education, the University of Michigan has managed to keep the cost of attendance affordable by reducing the university's administrative expenditures and through a major investment in financial aid.
In fact, for an average state student with a household income of $80,000 or less, it now costs less to attend U-M than it did six years ago. And the amount of loans in the financial aid package for this same student was less than in 2004. This year alone, the university invested more than $100 million in financial aid, and some Michigan students with annual family incomes up to about $120,000 received aid.
The Nov. 6 Free Press article about the cost of higher education for middle class families in Michigan ("College dream slips away") included errors of fact and drew an inaccurate conclusion about college affordability. The risk is that these serious errors may discourage qualified students from applying, and that's tragic.
Our state needs more students with college degrees, and we should be working together to make that happen. A college education at the University of Michigan is absolutely within reach for middle-class students from our state.
The article focused on the sticker price of tuition, rather than the actual cost of attending college. Tuition has indeed increased, as a direct result of relentless cuts in state aid. Even so, the cost of attending U-M (which includes tuition, room and board, books and fees) has actually gone down for our state's students with need, because of our commitment to providing financial aid.
We were struck that the article praised the University of Virginia's policy to meet all demonstrated need for in-state students while failing to note that U-M has long had the very same commitment.
There are important considerations our state and our universities have to wrestle with about college costs. But it is essential that students and families know the facts about the current situation, and recognize a college education is within reach.
Michael A. Boulus
Executive Director, Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan
Shrinking state support
The Free Press' article pointing out the decline in middle-class students at "elite" public universities missed the primary driving factor in higher tuition at Michigan's 15 public universities: the dramatic cut in state support for higher education from 2001 to today.
In 2001, per-student state support for Michigan's universities was $6,869. Today it is $4,577. If it had increased at the rate of inflation, per-student support would be $8,421. In other words, about $3,844 of the annual tuition bill facing an average student today is the direct result of state budget cuts.
Just this year, the state cut per-student support by $827. The average tuition at Michigan public universities increased $641. Per-student spending decreased once again at universities.
On top of these budget cuts has come the elimination of state-funded scholarship programs. The state even cut work/study funding last year, as it chopped spending to pay for tax cuts for businesses.
The article mentioned Virginia as an example of a state that is doing more to keep doors open for middle class students. Virginia increased state spending on higher education by 18.8% over the last five years, at a time when Michigan was slashing its support.
Michigan is at a crossroads. It can continue to cut higher education and end up with lower quality schools and fewer opportunities for students. Or it can invest and turn Michigan to prosperity. The states with the highest per capita incomes are not those states with the lowest taxes, but the states with the highest percentage of population with a college degree. Michigan today ranks 34th in percentage of people with a bachelor's degree, in line with its rank as 37th in per capita income.
Virginia is moving in the right direction on this issue. It ranks sixth in the percentage of its population with a college degree and, as a result, seventh in per capita income. The governor there has said investing in higher education is a "jobs" issue.
We can follow Virginia's lead or continue down our current path. Only one leads to higher incomes and a better quality of life for young people and the state as a whole.