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Commentary: Higher education and the future

Governor Snyder’s budget includes a two percent increase for higher ed. That’s close to the current inflation rate, which means, essentially, no extra money for state colleges and universities.

Now, you can argue that times are still tough and everyone has to watch spending. But in fact, higher education has been hit harder than any other major budget category since Rick Snyder became governor two years ago. Over that time, the state has cut support for higher ed by more than 11 percent.

Colleges and universities didn’t fare very well under former Governor Jennifer Granholm either. Cynics might say that’s because a minority of voters have college degrees in this state, which makes it politically easier to cut. In this case, the cynics are largely right.

What makes this tragic, however, is that Michigan adults are undereducated, compared to those in surrounding states. That’s largely because for many years, we had a muscle-based economy. Thanks to the automotive sector, and the United Auto Workers union, you could get a good-paying job on an assembly line with no more, and sometimes less, than a high school education.

Those days are gone forever, and we’ve known that for some time. The new economy jobs of the future are going to require a better educated work force. Yes, we need more trained technicians as well, plumbers and welders and electricians.

Yet we also need a lot more college graduates than we have, and we need to find ways to make education affordable. We had something in Michigan called the Michigan Promise scholarship that was available to all state students who did well in school. But the state broke its promise and canceled these scholarships during the Granholm administration, and few protested very much on behalf of the students.

Today, even among those who recognize that we need more college graduates and that education is becoming less and less affordable, there is a distressing tendency to put most of the pressure to keep costs down on the schools. And that’s not just from conservative Republicans.

During his State of the Union address, President Obama said correctly that, ”today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.” That’s true enough. However, he then added, “but taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.” What that means isn’t clear.

He did hint that colleges would be rewarded or punished, in terms of federal aid, for their “affordability and value,” and said there would be a college scorecard forthcoming, something that sounded a lot like Governor Snyder’s dashboard for measuring progress. This may make a lot of sense. But there are many intangible factors involved in what makes a college education worthwhile.

And the President is wrong about one thing. Taxpayers should continue to subsidize higher education, even at higher levels. We subsidize pensions, which are rewards for our past. We spend more money in Michigan on prisons, which warehouse our failures.

Higher education is all about our future. And if we are to have a brighter one, we need to invest in it.  

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