Support for public education dwindles

Apr 10, 2012 Issues: Education

Parents sending their children off to college this year in Michigan face a one-two punch of public funding constraints that could only add to the debt students are accumulating to pay for school. Not only has state support dwindled, Republicans in Congress are pursuing substantial cuts to federal aid programs.

Twenty-five years ago, public universities in Michigan relied on state support to make up about three-quarters of their general funds, which helped students attend school at affordable rates. Today, that support barely registers; now student tuition makes up three-quarters of their general funds.

Putting it another way, just a decade ago, the state of Michigan provided public universities more than $9,000 per student, keeping tuition at approximately $6,000. Last year state support per student dropped to $5,000, while average tuition increased to $9,500.

The resulting tuition increases have far outstripped inflation, leaving students at the whims of private lenders, congressional appropriators and their parents’ generous support to pay for their degrees.

State budget cuts should not hollow out support for public universities. State support for public schools has always rested on the belief that public education benefits the entire state, providing a social and economic return on investment for all of us.

Under President Obama’s leadership, federal aid programs have grown in recent years, helping to provide a small, but important counterweight to decreasing state support. Pell Grants have increased in award size, reaching a growing number of students and federally subsidized loans have remained at below-market rates.

Those key programs, however, are under siege from House Republicans intent on cutting funding. The budget Republicans approved recently reflects the apparent belief that a large number of Pell Grants go to students who don’t actually need them, despite the fact that three-quarters of recipients come from households making less than $30,000 a year.

Pell Grants are the foundation of federal aid and are focused on the neediest students. They are hugely important to students throughout the state of Michigan. In the 2010 school year, students at Michigan institutions received a total of 304,000 awards worth more than $1 billion.

In Macomb and Oakland counties alone, 20,000 students benefit from the grants.

Federally subsidized loan rates are set to double in June, and despite strong support from Democrats for keeping rates at current levels — 3.4 percent — Republicans have shown little interest in making it happen. In fact, the Republican budget assumes the rate will double, taking no action to prevent it.

In the 2009 school year, students across Michigan helped pay their college tuition with 300,000 low-interest, federally subsidized Stafford loans. That’s a lot of students — and parents —who are facing a huge financial obligation come June.

Without action, more than 7 million students around the country will see their repayment costs balloon by an average $2,800.

State support should be increased and federal financial assistance should be protected so that all students, regardless of income, who are willing to study hard can afford to go to college.