Going backward faster on higher education

In our 2006 A New Agenda for a New Michigan report we wrote: “As we assess the assets Michigan has to prepare, retain, and attract talent, our higher education system rises to the top of the list. Michigan has spent decades building a world-class system of higher education, both universities and community colleges. They are arguably the most important assets we have in developing the concentration of talent we need to be successful in a knowledge-based economy. That is particularly true of our major research universities. Higher education’s importance in preparing talent for a knowledge economy is clear. But it also is one of the most important assets—if not the most important—in retaining and attracting talent. Our universities, particularly the research universities, are among the few enterprises in the state that attract talent from around the world: students, faculty, and researchers. So the single most important thing policy makers can do for the future economic success of Michigan and its regions is to ensure the long-term success of a vibrant and agile higher education system.”

And we have written regularly ever since that the state is making a huge mistake – on a bi-partisan basis – by continually cutting higher education spending. Something like a one third reduction in spending over the past decade. Not smart to say the least. The hope of many has been that as the state’s economy started to expand again and state government revenue began growing again that those cuts could be reversed. Think again!

As journalist Susan Demas brilliantly describes in a Mlive article entitled “Is the GOP trying to kill higher education and Michigan’s economic future?” the state legislature is increasingly anti higher education. Particularly anti the state’s public higher education institutions and most particularly the University of Michigan. Demas writes:

It was bad enough when Gov. Rick Snyder, a product of three degrees at the University of Michigan, last year proposed a 15-percent cut to state aid for the state’s 15 public universities — and GOP lawmakers couldn’t sign off fast enough.  …  It’s bad enough that their clumsy actions could choke off what has been the only consistently vibrant part of our economy in the last couple decades. (Don’t believe me? Check out the history of unemployment rates in Michigan in Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, local economies fueled by university employment and research). But now, particularly in the House, GOP lawmakers have taken to haranguing universities about every little thing, as part of the culture war and their general distrust of what they consider to be “liberal” institutions.

In another insightful Mlive article entitled” Gov. Rick Snyder’s talent message: What happened to letting the market decide?” Demas makes the point that increasingly Lansing policy makers are abandoning their free market orientation in favor of moving towards a command and control system of higher education. She writes about the movement towards the state getting involved in what majors higher education institutions should offer:

There are a couple big problems with this big government solution. The first is that in Snyder’s new business friendly culture, shouldn’t we let the market decide? After all, if parents and students want to invest in art history or classical languages degrees, who is Gov. Snyder to dictate that schools stop offering them? …  Universities aren’t mere factories for producing workers. They’re incubators for critical thinking. There’s a reason why philosophy majors at Harvard get six-figure offers from Wall Street. It’s not that their knowledge of Plato’s Republic is necessary to do the job. It’s the fact that they hold liberal arts degrees from a rigorous institution that has required them to think about, write about and debate important issues. It might be unfashionable to say that education is an inherent good. But if that’s now a naive concept, we’ve got a far bigger problem in this state than hundreds of jobs in high-demand fields being unfilled.

A big problem indeed! The combination of budget cuts and state micro management of our world class public higher education system is a recipe for Michiganders getting poorer. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy the individuals, communities and states that will be the most prosperous are those that are the most college educated. Michigan’s fundamental problem is that we are 34th in college attainment. That is the prime reason we have fallen to 39th in per capita income.

What we need from policy — and are not getting — is a commitment to insure a system of higher education that is world-class in: (1) preparing students for success in a flat world; and (2) contributing to new knowledge creation. The best way to do that as we wrote in a Center for Michigan column is by: “… restoring the more than $600 million in cuts over the past decade. And then build around empowered students and autonomous institutions. This will create a more market-based system that almost certainly will lead to a better balance of costs and quality than a Lansing-based command and control system.”

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