Six of Michigan’s 15 public universities are showing double-digit enrollment drops. Only four of the state’s universities – including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University – have seen enrollment increase by 1 percent over the past 10 years.

In a great piece published in Bridge Magazine, senior writer Ron French put the situation in graphic terms: Central Michigan University, for example, has lost an average of 1,164 students each year since 2014. In French’s telling, that’s “the equivalent of a Chippewa Marching Band parading off campus and never returning three times a year.”

Interest in attending college is dropping, as well. In 2018, just six out of 10 Michigan high school graduates signed up for post-high school education, the lowest in a decade.

Certainly, rising tuition rates have something to do with it. Equally important is the relatively robust state economy; with the unemployment rate running at a record low of 4.2 percent, it’s relatively easy to choose to work for immediate income rather than go to school and pay high fees.

At the same time, the Republican-controlled state Legislature this year adopted and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a higher education budget that doled out a skimpy average funding increase of 0.9 percent. Taking into account the 1.75 percent inflation factor, that amounts to a budget cut of 0.5 percent.

The state budget signed by Whitmer on Sept. 30 gives Michigan’s public universities $1.45 billion for the 2019 budget year that started Oct. 1. That’s 3.5 percent more dollars than the 2010-11 spending plan. But when adjusted for inflation, state funding for higher education has actually dropped 12 percent over the past nine years.

In comparison, this year’s state budget allocated $2 billion to the Department of Corrections, suggesting lawmakers are finding it more important to spend state money warehousing criminals in state prisons than educating our young people post high school.

Last year, Michigan ranked 44th in the nation in per-resident state support for higher education; at $195.52, our per-capita average support falls way behind the national average of $280.52. As recently as 2001, Michigan ranked 20th in the nation.

The iron rules of economics are beginning to bite colleges, as well. Declining enrollment means less tuition income, but costs (notably faculty and staff) are relatively fixed, squeezing operating income and requiring expense cuts. Bigger classes, reduced choices for courses and rising tuitions all reduce demand for university admissions.

That, in turn, hurts the state’s economic prospects. Experts predict that maintaining our high-tech economy will require something like 60 percent of the workforce to have some post-high school training; currently, only 44 percent have it today.

Overcoming all these problems will require increased support for colleges and universities from our resource allocators in Lansing. However, it’s no secret that higher education is facing more political skepticism than years ago. Critics say universities are hostile to conservative thinking, and others point to the ratio between increased student debt and uncertain income increases resulting from a college degree. Pew, in a national poll, recently found that 59 percent of Republicans surveyed had negative opinions about higher education, compared to 18 percent of Democrats.

When I served as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan in the 1960s, I wrote annual letters to thousands of Michigan’s opinion leaders, trying to explain the challenges and opportunities U-M faced. I concluded that when the historians of the 21st century get around to writing the history of our times, the signature creation of American society in the past 100 years was to have created and sustained excellent public universities, with wide-ranging access for all our youth.

I’m beginning to worry these vital institutions may not survive the gathering storm.

About the writer: Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan. He wrote this op-ed for Bridge Magazine. 

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