Opinion: Budget battle puts higher education at risk

Robert LeFevre
Budget cuts to college education appropriations could damage Michigan's economy, LeFevre writes.

This week’s wrangling between the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resulted in drastic cuts to essential programs and services. The result? Many of our state’s most vulnerable populations are at risk — and so is our state’s economic future.

One of the many appropriations that vanished provided financial aid to nearly 17,000 students attending college across the state — adults, veterans and first-generation students. These unique populations can't afford this loss of aid as they pursue post-secondary education.

Our state can’t afford it either. Economic growth and opportunity are closely linked to educational attainment. When our students have to drop out of college, Michigan becomes less competitive for jobs, incomes and productivity. Little by little, one by one, our prosperity is put to death by a thousand paper cuts.

To see the impact of this budget mess, just look at Veronica Barolo, who’s pursuing a nursing degree at University of Detroit Mercy. When she was in high school and taking the SATs, her father suffered a traumatic injury and was left in a coma. Thankfully, he pulled through, but the injury forced him to retire and raised some questions about how the family would fund Barolo’s college education.

“This grant has helped ease some of the financial burden of attending college,” she said. “My dad is doing great, but paying for tuition has been a little tight. Without the grant I would be forced to take out more student loans so I’m really thankful for it.”

Or meet Noah Rye, who has just graduated from Kettering University with a degree in mechanical engineering.

“As a student whose parents wanted to help but couldn’t, things like the Michigan Tuition Grant made college at my dream school a reality. It hasn’t been easy, and even with grants, it certainly hasn’t been a free ride,” Rye said. “There is only so much a single person can do on their own, and the Michigan Tuition Grant gives support to many people who just would not be able to afford college on their own no matter how hard they work.”

Students who receive the tuition grant represent approximately 30% of all students receiving need-based financial aid from the state of Michigan. And that’s not all:

  • 5,646 MTG recipients are over the age of 25, the only program serving adult students in Michigan who are earning a bachelor’s degree
  • At least 210 grant recipients are veterans
  • More than 6,000 grant recipients are first-generation college students

But the need that exists represents only half of the equation. In 2020, 65% of all jobs will require some level of education beyond high school. But today, only 39% of Michigan’s working age population are ready for those jobs.

Moreover, salaries significantly improve for Michiganians that obtain more than a high school education. With some college or an associate’s degree, salaries are on average 22% higher than those with a high school degree. For those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, salaries are on average twice those with only a high school degree.

By cutting opportunities for Michigan students to continue learning, state leaders put our state’s future prosperity — and the incomes of Michigan families — at risk. Employers looking for skilled, educated talent are going to pass Michigan by. Personal incomes and productivity will fall. Our growth will be stopped in its tracks.

It doesn’t matter how this budget mess got started. What matters now is that it is fixed promptly, before even one of Michigan’s college students is forced to give up on his or her future.

The stakes are simply too high.

Robert LeFevre is president of Michigan’s Independent Colleges & Universities.