Stephen Henderson: Higher Ed Cuts Shortchange Michigan's Future

Stephen Henderson: Higher Ed Cuts Shortchange Michigan's Future
April 29, 2012/Detroit Free Press

By Stephen Henderson

To get through the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, my wife worked three jobs and took the maximum class load so she could graduate in three years. She did everything she could to come up with the $8,000 she needed each year for tuition, room and board and books.

It wasn't easy, even back then. But if she were a student today, Michigan -- where students now need about $25,000 each year to attend -- would probably be out of the question. The only way she could possibly swing it would be with massive loans that would have saddled her, and eventually me, with a staggering long-term debt.

That's the price of this state's shameful disinvestment in higher education over the past decade. The public allocation for our 15 colleges and universities has declined steadily, and tuition costs have risen just as steadily to make up the difference.

So now, to get an education, all but the richest kids in Michigan essentially have to sign up for indentured servitude. After graduation, they'll have debts that will follow them for years and can't even be escaped in bankruptcy.

We can do better.

Business Leaders for Michigan came to see the Free Press editorial board this week to make that point rather emphatically. In charts and graphs full of statistics, the group outlined how shortsighted it has been for the state to pull back on investing in higher education.

It's hurting our economy, starving it of the 1.3 million college graduates Michigan will need to fill work force demand by 2025. It's putting us behind other states such as Texas, California and North Carolina, which spend an average of $2,000 more than Michigan does per student.

And it's crushing college grads. The Institute for College Access and Success estimates the average student debt burden in Michigan is more than $25,000, and that 60% of the state's graduates owe money.

Also, according to BLM's numbers, Michigan's colleges and universities spend less per student on administrative costs than their peer institutions around the country, and they have embraced important cost-cutting reforms.

As part of its Michigan Turnaround Plan, BLM has outlined a higher education reinvestment strategy, and Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed 2012-13 budget does reflect an increase in public support for the schools for the first time in many years. The Legislature is discussing how to divide that money -- should most of it be guaranteed, or should it go into an incentive pool that institutions can earn by achieving and maintaining efficiencies?

But there are other policy changes that will be necessary both to make college more affordable and boost the number of degree recipients in Michigan.

The state has 1.3 million residents who've attended college but have no degree, according to the Lumina Foundation; Snyder should also be pushing the Legislature to come up with ways to encourage those folks to go back and finish.

And there is still a lot of work to do at the K-12 level to prepare more kids for college. Michigan has been sliding down the rankings for nearly every educational outcome for a decade. It also does an especially poor job of getting children in rural counties and racial minorities prepared for college. Michigan still spends plenty on K-12, but so much of that money now goes to pensions and retiree health care that not nearly enough is getting to classrooms. Major reforms will be necessary to reverse the trend.

Investing more in higher education means investing more in Michigan's most important asset -- its young people. No one's suggesting that a college education should come easy, or without sacrifice. My wife can attest to the value of working hard while going to school.

But we're far past the point where middle- or lower-income students can reasonably work their way through our public universities without assuming an unreasonable debt burden.

Right now, that hurts the whole state. But it's also an opportunity for Snyder and the Legislature to make a big difference for Michigan's future.

Stephen Henderson is editorial page editor for the Free Press and the host of "American Black Journal," which airs at 1 p.m. Sundays on Detroit Public Television. Follow Henderson on Twitter@SHendersonFreep. Contact him at, or at 313-222-6659.