Rick Haglund: College Affordability Pays Off in Unexpected Ways (Listen Up, State Government)

Rick Haglund: College Affordability Pays Off in Unexpected Ways (Listen Up, State Government)
June 02, 2013/Mlive

By Rick Haglund 

Higher education has few friends in state government.

Appropriations to the state’s 15 public universities were cut annually for a decade, although they received a slight increase this year.

While providing less financial support, lawmakers have not hesitated to meddle in the affairs of universities that are granted autonomy under the state constitution.

Legislatures and governors around the country are even questioning the value of large, public research universities, which produce about 70 percent of the nation’s engineers, scientists and physicians.

I’m not suggesting that these universities should be immune to debate about their governance and financing.

College affordability is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. While cutting public funding doesn’t help, even experts such as former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt acknowledge that universities must do a better job of controlling costs.

But in the squabbling about how money is spent, we lose sight of the special role universities, especially large research institutions, play in improving life in our state.

In one recent example, U-M researchers and surgeons performed an incredible medical breakthrough that involved biomedical engineering, cutting-edge manufacturing and entrepreneurial speed in a life-saving surgery.

Can’t ask for much more than that, can we?

In case you missed this fascinating story, here’s what happened:

Kaiba Gionfriddo, an Ohio infant, suffered from a rare disorder that caused his airway to collapse when he tried to breathe.

“He was imminently going to die,” said Glenn Green, an associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at U-M.

In February 2012, Green and colleague Scott Hollister, a biomedical and mechanical engineer and associate professor of surgery, built a plastic windpipe using 3-D printing and implanted it in Kaiba’s throat.

The first-of –its-kind procedure was revealed last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A 3-D printer works somewhat like an ink jet printer. But instead of squirting ink, the 3-D printer shoots layers of plastic into a pre-determined shape.

Green and Hollister obtained emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration to implant the device.

Kaiba, now 20 months old, is doing well and no longer “turning blue,” said his mother, April.

Beyond saving lives, universities also give a big, but often-unappreciated boost to Michigan’s economy.

Michigan’s three largest research universities—U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University—generated $15.5 billion in statewide economic impact last year.

That’s nearly as much as the $17.7 billion in economic impact claimed by the state’s tourism industry.

The state’s economic development agency regularly churns out news releases on companies that create jobs with the help of state incentives.

But there is little recognition of the benefits of state-funded universities, which boost the economy, save lives and make Michigan a better place to live.

Email Rick Haglund at haglund.rick@gmail.com