Michigan Can Mend Its Broken Promise

Unfortunately, an important promise to Michigan’s college students has been broken, but we hope only temporarily.  The Michigan Promise Scholarship, which provides up to $4,000 for eligible students at the state’s public universities, was eliminated under the budget recently signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. This broken promise affects some 96,000 undergraduates and their families.

The governor has stressed the importance of the Michigan Promise Scholarship and has committed to restoring it through targeted enhancement of revenues. We applaud her efforts and those of members of the Legislature who support its restoration.

Michigan’s government has long acknowledged the need for more skilled college graduates to stimulate the state’s economy. The “promise” in the Michigan Promise Scholarship implied two things: that the state made a commitment to its young citizens and that the promise of a better future for Michigan absolutely depends on an increasingly well prepared work force.

In 2004, Granholm created the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth, which was charged with doubling the number of Michigan college graduates over 10 years and with ensuring that Michigan’s system of higher education gave our young people the skills needed to succeed in the 21st Century. Eliminating the Promise Scholarship moves Michigan in the opposite, and wrong, direction.

In Michigan, state revenues are down 35% since 2000, and our public universities have suffered accordingly. Over the past decade, Michigan ranks a dismal 49th among all states in growth for support of higher education. Because of this disinvestment, Michigan’s universities have been forced to increase tuition in an attempt to preserve the quality of their academic programs. Unfortunately, such increases will continue until state policymakers reinvest in Michigan’s future through stable higher education and K-12 appropriations.

At Wayne State we have tempered the effect of tuition increases by increased financial aid through private gifts and the reallocation of institutional funds for need-based scholarships. Even before the Promise Scholarship was eliminated, we took action to diminish the barrier that financial need might pose to students. This year, for example, we doubled the amount of need-based aid available to most students and established a program through which alumni or their spouses who recently have lost their jobs receive tuition discounts. Over the past few years we have reduced our operating expenses by more than $50 million.

But reductions and reallocations cannot continue indefinitely without damaging our system of higher education. Michigan already ranks 37th in the country in the percent of population with baccalaureate degrees, and penalizing our universities will do nothing to improve that depressing statistic.

Unfortunately, Promise Scholarship funds have proven a tempting target for legislators seeking ways to reduce state spending over the short term. But the idea that Michigan’s budget crisis can be resolved only by slashing spending is extremely shortsighted. Calling for cuts, no matter how painful, may be more politically expedient than proposing revenue enhancements, but cutting programs and services will continue to erode the very economy that generates the revenues that fund essential services and our future economic growth. Already we’re playing with our children’s future — and having reached that extreme, what can we eliminate next?

While it’s true that revenue enhancements might increase the financial burden on some of our citizens, using new funds to support the Michigan Promise Scholarship would ensure our young people a jump start on useful, relevant careers and have a positive effect on Michigan’s economy.

Most important, it also would encourage our young talent to stay in Michigan rather than move to states that have wisely invested in the future through higher education.

Jay Noren is president of Wayne State University.

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