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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Editorial: State's Public Colleges Can Take a Lesson from Private Schools on Holding Down Costs

The Grand Rapids Press - February 24, 2009

by The Grand Rapids Press Editorial Board

WHY IT MATTERS

Michigan can't afford to price its residents out of the higher education that is key to training a better workforce to fill high-tech jobs that can reverse the state's economic slide.

Michigan's 15 public universities could learn a thing or two from the financial belt-tightening taking place at Hope and Calvin colleges. Leaders at the private four-year schools in Holland and Grand Rapids have decided to freeze the salaries of all employees, including the presidents, in response to escalating costs that are making a college education increasingly unaffordable.

The pay freeze means faculty and staff on those campuses will share the pain with students. Hope is raising tuition 2.9 percent; Calvin by 3.8 percent in the fall. Both increases are smaller than last year's 4.7 percent at Hope and 6.9 percent at Calvin. It's an indication that trustees at the two schools are not oblivious to the concept of shared sacrifice.

The state's public universities typically don't make tuition decisions until June or July. Although Grand Valley State University last week approved a 3.8 percent increase in room and board rates for next fall, school officials said they have not made a decision regarding tuition. Last year, GVSU raised tuition a whopping 13 percent; Michigan State University's tuition increased 6.8 percent; U-M's went up 5.6 percent. Tuition increases at the other public universities ranged from 3.7 percent at Saginaw Valley State to 9.2 percent at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

The average increase last fall at the state's public four-year universities was 7 percent. An increase that large this year would be unconscionable. Leaders at the state's public universities should use Hope and Calvin as a guide and do them one better by freezing tuition as well.

The burden of year-after-year tuition hikes -- which far exceeded the rate of inflation -- were bad enough during good economic times. Now, during the prolonged economic squeeze, annual tuition increases are becoming unbearable for some students and their parents.

College affordability is a problem nationwide, but especially so in Michigan. A report by the Michigan League for Human Services in Lansing found the average tuition in Michigan in 2007 was $8,508. The Midwest average was $7,374; nationwide, it was $6,185. Tuition at Michigan's 15 public four-year universities jumped 20 percent from fall 2005 to fall 2007. During the same period, Michigan's real median income fell nearly 2 percent.

In her State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, urged the state's public universities and community colleges to freeze tuition. She and almost everyone else recognizes that to get a good paying job today, at least some college or technical training is required. Affordability is vital if residents are going to get the education and training that's needed. The governor tied tuition restraint to additional money from funds expected in the federal stimulus package. Schools holding tuition in check would be rewarded. That is a temporary salve. What happens to tuition when the stimulus money dries up in two years?

The governor and state lawmakers need to find a way to pour more funds into higher education. A report last year by the Pew Center said Michigan was one of just four states to spend more money on prisons than higher education.

By the same measure, the people running and overseeing Michigan's public universities ought to be able to come up with alternatives to yearly tuition hikes to fill budget holes. Any number of measures that other businesses employ to cope with difficult times, such as freezing or cutting salaries, reduced spending, trimming employee benefits, postponing building and other projects, must be viable options.

Educators are quick to note that a college degree translates into significantly higher earnings over an individual's lifetime. However, if you can't afford the initial cost of that degree, you won't have the chance to make it pay off.

The state's public universities exist to serve the people. Tuition costs that literally close college doors to some residents or saddle them with huge debts are not serving their purpose. Educators can't remain oblivious to that reality.

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