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Sabotaging our future

Thirteen years ago, when Dick Posthumus was running for governor, we talked about higher education. 

We’re almost the same age, didn’t come from rich families, and had gone to the same state school at the same time, in the early 1970s.

I mentioned to him that in our era we could get a good job in the summer, live with our parents, and almost, not quite but almost, make enough to afford our tuition and room and board for the school year. He agreed with me, and also agreed this was no longer possible.

But when I asked what could be done about that, he really didn’t have an answer. That’s not to pick on Posthumus; nobody else has provided any answers either.

Today, the situation is worse. We have decided to systematically disinvest in higher education, which means disinvest in our state’s future. And that also means we are striving to create a future without a middle class. There may be some technical economic term for this, but the only ones that come to mind are words I can’t say on the radio.

Over the weekend, a story in the New York Times noted that the only really thriving middle-class group these days is America’s senior citizens.

They were about the last generation to have guaranteed benefit pensions, they had jobs that enabled them to pay off their homes, and they weren’t saddled for decades with huge student loan debt. That’s because, for a few decades after World War II, we decided to invest in our future.

This may have been because we feared competition from the Russians, but this nation and this state made higher education possible for just about any smart and hard-working kid.

That’s not true anymore. Yesterday, Eastern Michigan University took some heat for raising tuition 7.8 percent. The state wanted them to hold tuition hikes to 3.2 percent, and supposedly provides incentive funding for schools to do that.

But the incentive funding is a joke. By raising tuition, EMU is expected to take in about ten million extra dollars at the price of forfeiting a mere one million.

That doesn’t mean the school is eager to gouge the students. They know they may lose a few who just can’t pay the extra tuition. But they can’t help it. As Joel Ferguson, a longtime MSU trustee told the Detroit News yesterday, Michigan has been reducing public support for universities for years.

We now provide less funding for our schools than all but four other states. Our lawmakers are working hard to make sure we won’t have a future.

Eastern, by the way, is still one of the state’s cheapest schools. But even there, tuition alone now costs almost $42,000 for a four year degree. The University of Michigan is much higher. Frankly, I don’t know why today’s students and their parents aren’t up in arms.

Our only chance for a prosperous future lies in today’s adults recognizing that today’s teenagers are more important than we are. We’ve had our time, and we were given help.

Not to provide that for today’s students is about as immoral, short-sighted, and destructive a policy as I can imagine. But that’s what we are doing, whether we admit it or not.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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