Higher education costs are out of hand, keeping degrees out of reach

Gilda Z. Jacobs is the current President and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy

From my 12 years as a legislator to my work at the helm of the Michigan League for Public Policy, the skyrocketing cost of college in Michigan has and continues to be a concern of mine. But it has suddenly and literally hit much closer to home.

 In the past few months, my daughter and her husband moved back home to Michigan from New York, bringing two of my adorable grandchildren with them. And while my work is always driven by what is best for all Michigan kids and families, the new reality of what that means for my family gives all our state policies a new context.

 Though my grandkids are four and two years old, I am already thinking—and yes, worrying—about their future. Education is at the very top of that list, from where they’re going to go for child care and preschool right now to where they are going to go to college. Because of my role at the League, I know too much about the public policy challenges in our state and the barriers Michigan kids are facing, and it makes it hard to be a “Mimi” (my grandma name) sometimes.

 The cost of college is a big concern, and it has gotten particularly outrageous here in Michigan. When I went to the University of Michigan in 1966, tuition cost roughly $200 to $300 a year. By the time my daughters were both college-aged in 1997, the average state public tuition was up to around $4,000 annually.

 That was a big leap, but nothing like what college costs have done since then, going through the roof over the last two decades and making a higher education even more difficult for families to be able to afford, at the very same time that a college degree is becoming more and more essential to a career. 

 The most significant tuition hikes in Michigan took place in the mid-2000s. For example, the class of 2015 at nearly every Michigan public university paid more than double the tuition paid by the class of 2003. More than double. At Michigan State University, for example, the class of 2003 paid a sticker price of just over $23,000 for four years of college, but the class of 2015 paid almost $54,000 for four years of college. That is a 132% increase in tuition at MSU over the course of 12 years. MSU is not the exception, but rather exemplifies the rule of all Michigan universities. And today, the average tuition is nearly $3,000 per year higher in Michigan than it was 10 years ago.

 How did we get here? Michigan policymakers have been part of the problem.

This huge increase is in large part because Michigan has made deep cuts in state funding for its universities, which the Michigan League for Public Policy examined in our 2016 back to school report, Rising tuition and weak state funding and financial aid create more student debt. Per-student funding for Michigan’s public colleges and universities is 17% below 2008 levels. Our Legislature is even taking money from our K-12 public schools to fund higher education and total funding is STILL far below what it was in 2008.

 A new report from the National Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that state spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historical levels across the country, and Michigan is no different. Worse yet, the Center found that Michigan’s state disinvestment in higher education and ballooning tuition costs disproportionately affect students of color and their families. Average tuition and fees at a Michigan university comprise about 36% of the median income of a Black family in Michigan 27% of the median income for a Latinx family, but only 21% of the median income for a white family. That’s the fourth-highest percentage in the nation for Black families and the fifth-highest for Latinx families.

Finally, Michigan is also underserving older college students. A growing number of college students in the state are older than traditional college student age, but Michigan has NO financial aid for students who have been out of high school for more than 10 years who are attending a public university.

Michigan’s growing higher education costs are a major problem. But the more voices we have drawing attention to this issue and the array of people affected by it, the more likely it is that policymakers will take notice, and more importantly, take action.

Recently, the Michigan College Access Network released the Total Talent report, which also calls attention to the work needed to make college accessible and affordable to students in Michigan. In particular, the report demands that the State of Michigan reduce the burden on families in paying for college, increase need-based financial aid funding through an investment of $400 million, and financially support the earning of credentials among adult workers in Michigan.

We are glad to be partnering with the Michigan College Access Network and other stakeholders to make sure a higher education is more affordable and accessible, not just for my grandkids but for all our kids and grandkids. Michigan’s future truly depends on it.

Author: Gilda Z. Jacobs, President and CEO, Michigan League for Public Policy
Posted: Oct. 30, 2018

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