The case for higher education as a priority

By • on May 20, 2011

Great column in Dome Magazine by Glen Mroz, the terrific President of Michigan Tech. Mroz makes the case that cutting higher education funding is harmful to the Michigan economy.

First the facts. State appropriations to higher education are down 35% over the last ten years. So much for the nonsense that the state went on a spending spree the last decade. We ended last year as one of the bottom 10 states in the nation in tax dollars spent per student for higher education.  With the record 15% cut (or more) that will come with this year’s budget we almost for sure will drop to bottom five. Not smart!

And what has happened during the decade of cuts? Michigan has had the worst economy in the nation. Yes, as we have slashed funding for higher education the state’s economy has collapsed, not flourished as the small government crowd promises. Is there a direct link between state spending on higher education and a state’s economic performance? Of course not. No more that there is a direct link between low taxes and/or low business taxes and a state’s economic performance.

But where there is a strong correlation is between the proportion of adults with a four year degree and how prosperous a state is. (See this post.) Michigan is now 36th in college attainment and has fallen from 18th to 36th in per capita income since 2000. As Mroz writes disinvesting in higher education risks making that slide permanent:

Just before our spring commencement celebrations, I met with the Michigan Technological University Board of Control and told them of my major concern for the future of the state. The bottom line: businesses are already having a hard time finding enough talented, skilled people in science and engineering, and business will only flourish where the skilled and talented people are.

Where will Michigan end up after dust from the current budget battle settles? Will we look more like a successful state — or more like one of those that seem to have tossed in the towel in the fight for prosperity? The deep cuts to higher education, and the seeming indifference of many in the public policy arena today to the collective value of that education and its role as a public good that creates wealth for all, would seem to provide an answer. One that doesn’t bode well for Michigan’s future prosperity.

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