A roadmap for supporting higher education

We have long argued that the state needs to reverse recent trends of under-investing in colleges, universities and community colleges. Michigan spent decades building a world-class systems of higher education.  The system is arguably the most import asset the state has to develop the concentration of talent Michigan needs to be successful in the knowledge-based economy.

Obviously we have not got to the point where state policy makers are willing to move back to reinvestment. In fact we are going in the opposite direction with a budget that will implement the largest reduction in state support for higher education ever. But when we are ready – hopefully soon – we now have a roadmap that should be the framework for higher education funding and policy going forward.

It comes from University of Michigan President Emeritus James J. Duderstadt. It is contained in his terrific new report for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs entitled A Master Plan for Higher Education in the Midwest. (For those interested in all the details you can get the full report here.) There are far too many good ideas in the report to cover them all here. I really urge you to read the report.

The report is written for the Midwest. Where the midwest is defined as the six Great Lakes States as well as Iowa and Missouri. States that Duderstadt believes share a common economy and common history of past support for building world-class public universities and colleges as well as a recent history of disinvestment in those institutions.

My plan is to review the report in several posts. This one will focus on the case Duderstadt makes that higher education is at the center of the region’s efforts to grow its economy. I want to start with this topic because unless we believe that higher education is a core component of economic development we are never going to reinvest in higher education. Here is the essence of the report’s case for the centrality of higher education to prosperity:

… perhaps the greatest weakness of the Midwest, its Achilles’ heel, is its human capital, an aging workforce, inadequately educated and skilled for the global economy, addicted to entitlements and stability, resisting the key characteristics that will determine the future of the region, innovative skills, entrepreneurial zeal, immigration, risk, and change. …

The future of the Midwest region no longer depends on our factories and farms or a labor force possessing physical strength and determination, but limited skills and education. Nor will our region’s remarkable natural resources, our forests and fertile fields, our rivers and inland seas, determine our future. From here on out, our future depends on how well we develop our human resources and how we create and apply new knowledge through innovation and entrepreneurial zeal. …

Today a radically new system for creating wealth has evolved that depends upon the creation and application of new knowledge and hence upon educated people and their ideas. Nations are investing heavily and restructuring their economies to create high-skill, high-paying jobs in knowledge-intensive areas, such as new technologies, financial services, trade, and professional and technical services. From San Diego to Paris, Bangalore to Shanghai, there is a growing recognition throughout the world that economic prosperity and social well-being in a global knowledge-driven economy require public investment in knowledge resources. That is, regions must create and sustain a highly educated and innovative workforce and the capacity to generate and apply new knowledge, supported through policies and investments in developing human capital, technological innovation, and entrepreneurial skill. In the knowledge economy, the key assets driving corporate value are intellectual and human capital. And key to the availability of these resources are world-class schools, colleges, and universities. …

… today regional advantage is not achieved through politically popular devices, such as tax cuts for the wealthy, public subsidy of dying industries, or attempts to raid business from neighboring states. Instead it is achieved by creating a highly educated and skilled workforce. It requires public investment in the ingredients of innovation—educated people, new knowledge, and the infrastructure to support advanced learning and research. Put another way, it requires firm public purpose, visionary policies, and adequate investment to create a learning- and innovation-driven society. …

The Midwest’s underinvestment in advanced education, research, and innovation, coupled with short-sighted public policies and corporate strategies that further constrain efforts to build a high-skill workforce and generate the research, innovation, and entrepreneurial zeal necessary to achieve a knowledge economy, should be a matter of great concern to state leaders. The region today must restore an adequate balance between meeting the needs of an aging population and investing in the state’s future through reducing the legacy costs of an obsolete economy burdened with low-skill work-force, and investing in building and sustaining a world-class learning and innovation infrastructure for tomorrow. The challenge to leaders is to develop visionary policies, outstanding institutions, and world-class infrastructure that will produce the knowledge workers, the educated professionals, and the new knowledge necessary to build and attract new knowledge-based industries capable of driving future economic growth.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.