You thought your child was doing well in school. A report card comes home saying that he just received an F. At school you learn that of the 50 students in the class, 36 received Fs and 11 received Ds. Only 3 students received C- or better. Your first thought is that there's a problem with the grading.
Welcome to the latest in shabby analysis about higher education. A recent report card graded the states on important college topics. In Michigan, they found us doing well in the benefits we provide back to the state (A-), and in providing opportunities in post-secondary education (B+). Michigan joined 36 other states--over two-thirds of all the states--with a grade of F in affordability.
Guess what the headlines have been since? Has there been much discussion of how we increase opportunities so next year our grade is A+ instead of B+? Unfortunately not. The only topic in discussion in policy circles is that Michigan got an F in affordability.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued its "Measuring Up 2004" report in September. This group is one of hundreds of nonpartisan nonprofit advocacy groups with offices in Washington D.C. It is a challenge in that environment to be heard. But such difficulty in being heard over the roar of press releases is no excuse for grabbing headlines with shabby work.
What is the biggest issue in college affordability? Put simply, there has been a massive shift in who pays for college. I am a product of public higher education in Michigan. When I went to school in the 1970s, for every $1 of tuition I paid, the state paid $3. Today, when a student pays $1, the state contributes less than $1--in Grand Valley State University's case, less than 70 cents. To a greater extent than ever in modern history, the students themselves are paying for public higher education.
First, in virtually every state, there has been an increase in prisons over the past 30 years. In Michigan, almost one of every three state employees is an employee of the Department of Corrections.
Second, all states have been scrambling to pay the costs of medical care for the poor. Since the late 1960s, we've been "partners" with the federal government in the Medicaid program. The partnership, is unfortunately, decidedly one-sided. The states and the federal government share the cost, but the federal government sets the rules. In Michigan, about 1.3 million of our 10 million residents have their health care paid for by this program. A typical increase in health care costs of 8 percent to 10 percent in a year will cause the Medicaid program alone to consume virtually all new general funds in a year of normal revenue growth. In a year of declining revenue, the pressure is that much worse.
Third, most states have been addressing K-12 financing by ensuring that the most poorly funded districts receive somewhat greater funding. Proposal A accomplished this in Michigan.
All of these are worthy public policy goals. We all want safe streets, health care for the destitute, and basic fairness in K-12 funding across the state. But all choices have consequences. And higher education has been the long-term loser in the scramble for state funding.
Certainly, college affordability is an issue, and the bottom line is the net cost of college tuition. After grants, federal tax credits, and other aid, how much is the average family actually paying? Actually, the net cost of college is much less than the "sticker" price for many students. At Grand Valley State University, about 75 percent of our students receive some form of financial help. A just-completed study shows that the average actual net cost of college tuition at Michigan's public universities is less than half the sticker price. Michigan's experience matches a national trend noted earlier this summer in USA Today. Their study concluded that the net cost of tuition at our nation's public colleges and universities has actually fallen by one-third since 1998.
Michigan may soon be embarking on a discussion about its overall state financial structure. How much government do we want and how much are we prepared to pay for it? While this long-term issue is critical, the near-term quality issues are equally important. For nine straight years enrollment in our state universities has increased. Our quality is high; it must be if we are to be competitive in our economy and vibrant in our communities. The quarter-million college students among us benefit from our ability to provide the courses and the support they need.
Over the past generation, the burden for paying for college has shifted from the state to the students. This is an important issue that warrants public policy review. Flunking over two-thirds of the states in the nation is no way to begin a thoughtful conversation on this critical issue.
Mark Murray is president of Grand Valley State University (Mich.).
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