By John Irwin
Much has been made of Gov. Rick Snyder’s higher education record as he makes his bid for re-election, and for good reason.
After all, one of the first things Snyder did as governor was cut higher education funding by 15 percent as part of his controversial fiscal year 2011-12 budget.
Snyder remains under fire from higher education leaders and advocates for his aggressive cost-cutting.
And Central Michigan University students have felt the pinch over the last several years as a result of the cut.
After Snyder signed his first budget into law, CMU received $3,112 in state appropriations per student for the 2011-12 fiscal year, down more than 16 percent from the $3,722 it received the previous year.
It looks worse after adjusting for inflation (top line in the graph below): CMU’s per-pupil appropriation funds dropped nearly 19 percent from $4,039 in 2010-11 to $3,290 in 2011-12.
Click on the chart to enlarge it. (Source: CMU Finance and Administrative Services) (Note: Snyder’s most recent, 6.2-percent funding increase is not reflected in the data above or below. The red lines represent appropriations during Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder, Republicans. The blue line represents funding under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The 20 most recent fiscal years are represented.)
Snyder has since increased funding for higher education incrementally since then as part of a long-term “strategic reinvestment” strategy. The governor said he wants to restore what was lost in the 15 percent cut in his second term, while Democratic challenger Mark Schauer has promised to restore funding “immediately.”
Both parties deserve blame
Higher education funding is now a partisan issue. Many Republicans and fiscal conservatives have praised Snyder for making tough decisions in order to balance the budget, while Democrats and higher education advocates have criticized the governor for forcing students to foot the bill and take on debt for ever-increasing college costs.
Objective observers, however, should note that higher education cuts have been steadily adding up for years under governors from both parties, and CMU students are feeling the effects of their decisions today.
Take a look at the graph above again. Over the last 20 years, per-student appropriations at CMU peaked in 2000 under Republican Gov. John Engler at $6,010, adjusted for inflation. That’s nearly double what CMU students received from the state in 2013-14 ($3,336).
Blame (or credit, depending on one’s view of the state’s role in education) for the huge decline in funds should clearly go beyond party lines. Now, look below:
Per-pupil appropriations dropped by 8 percent under Engler and by 18 percent through 2013-14 under Snyder, while they fell by 26 percent under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. (In real dollars, funding rose by 12 percent under Engler, fell by 10 percent under Granholm and decreased by 12 percent under Snyder.)
It’s clear, then, that while Snyder’s 15-percent cut in 2011 might have been the most dramatic and polarizing of recent slashes to state funding, it is only part of a larger story about how leaders in Lansing and Washington, D.C., and higher education administrators have collectively failed students for decades.
It’s a story goes beyond party lines. It involves decades of mismanagement of state budgets, bloated administrative and academic bureaucracies on campuses nationwide, and a broken federal student loan system that has left Americans with more than $1 trillion in outstanding debt.
Will voters hear much talk over the next two weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election about any sort of comprehensive reform to fix the system? Probably not.
What they’re far more likely to hear are Republicans, including Snyder, blaming Democrats for building up deficits during Granholm’s tenure. There was no choice, they’ll say, but to make cuts in order to balance the budget, even if those cuts were extreme and came during a time when work is often difficult to find.
Voters are likely to hear Democrats, including Schauer, try to pass all the blame onto Snyder for higher costs for students. They’ll almost certainly ignore the large funding cuts Granholm and many of them supported in the eight years before Snyder came into office.
All that misses the larger point. The higher education system is broken and needs immediate fixing, and finger-pointing will do nothing to help. Leaders in both parties should recognize that they have all had a hand in creating this mess, and they should be humbled enough to work together to get something done.
Most CMU students won’t be able to afford seeing their state funds get slashed in half over the next 15 years again.
John Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.