Jacques: Is Michigan university enrollment going to pot?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

As more states decide — as Michigan did last fall — that it should be legal to light up, universities are mulling programs to train students in the business and science of the burgeoning marijuana industry.

Lake Superior State University, based in Sault Ste. Marie, last week announced that it would start offering a bachelor’s degree in cannabis business. Four-year degrees related to pot are still fairly rare, but that's likely to change in coming years.

In this Feb. 14, 2019 photo, Colton Welch, a junior at the State University of New York at Morrisville, N.Y., tends hydroponic tomato plants which will provide students with data applicable to cannabis cultivation.

“Preparing students for tomorrow is our goal, and with a projected annual growth rate of over 28 percent and sales reaching $47 billion in the next decade, LSSU Cannabis Business graduates will have the skills and knowledge to take the lead in this emerging industry,” stated Ralf Wilhelms, a professor in LSSU’s Lukenda School of Business.

Northern Michigan University also has a newly minted four-year degree program in medicinal plant chemistry.

More:Higher education: Colleges add cannabis to curriculum

It’s somewhat curious that these Upper Peninsula public universities are the ones to offer these programs. And it got me thinking about the challenges facing these institutions.

A falling birth rate and a pattern of migration out of Michigan have caused financial headaches for both K-12 schools and Michigan’s 15 public universities.

While the state’s flagship institutions — the University of Michigan and Michigan State University — have also felt a sting of fewer in-state students, they have a strong enough reputation they can attract students from around the U.S. and the world to compensate.

The state’s other universities have a less easy time.

So you can be sure falling enrollment played into LSSU’s decision to turn to pot as a way to attract more students to its campus.

LSSU is the smallest of Michigan’s public universities at 1,826 full-time students enrolled in 2017-18. Only 18 students were from out of state. And its enrollment has fallen over the last few years. Compare that with the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, which has 46,855 students — nearly half of whom are from out of state.

Michigan university enrollment has dropped consistently the past seven years, and non-resident students constitute 45,600 of the 257,000 current students.

State taxpayers send about $1.6 billion to these 15 universities each year. For most of them, that’s 20 percent of their budgets.

As enrollment continues to decline, it’s worth asking whether we need that many universities, since each institution comes with hefty administrative and faculty costs.

James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center, says since 2012, the state has increased support of universities by 22 percent, even though tuition has risen and the number of residents earning degrees has dropped. Yet as Hohman acknowledges, downsizing the number of institutions would be difficult.

“It’s really tough to get rid of them once you’ve got them,” he says.

In the meantime, expect to see more universities offering unusual majors as they compete for a waning number of students.