By John Irwin
Mount Pleasant’s own Kevin Cotter will soon be the most powerful legislator in Lansing.
Cotter, a fourth-year representative who was narrowly re-elected earlier this month, was voted the Speaker of the House earlier this month by his fellow Republicans.
It’s an incredibly powerful and influential post. Cotter is not only charged with presiding over the lower chamber but also with overseeing the GOP’s vast 63-47 majority in the next legislative session.
It’s with this power that Cotter, the current vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, must turn his attention to addressing Michigan’s student loan debt crisis.
According to a new study released by the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access & Success, Michigan students graduate from college with more average debt than all but seven other states.
We’ve detailed the causes of rising tuition prices at Central Michigan University and other public universities in the state over the past decade or so. And while CMU students can rightly blame bloated administrative costs and an exploitative federal student loan system, they can also blame their leaders in Lansing.
For the past 20 years, governors in both parties have signed significant cuts to higher education funding into law, shifting more of the cost burden than ever onto students.
The most recent and devastating cut came in 2011, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a 15-percent cut to higher education funding into law as part of his first budget. While Snyder has since signed three small funding increases, the fact remains that state appropriations remain significantly lower than when he came into office.
Cotter has been disappointingly uninspiring on this issue. Rather than standing up for CMU students — his constituents — and others at the state’s other 14 public universities, he’s fallen right in line with Snyder and other state Republicans on the issue, rarely bucking his own party or questioning the state GOP’s leadership on the issue (or most others, for that matter).
Now, though, Cotter is the Republican leadership. He sets the agenda. He has an incredibly influential voice in the GOP.
America’s higher education system is broken, and Michigan, as is usually the case, is bearing the brunt of it.
It’s time for Cotter and the rest of our elected leaders in Lansing to prove their commitment to fixing it. Restoring the drastic 2011 cut after adjusting for inflation would be a tremendous start, as would continuing to work on ways to encourage Michigan’s public universities to keep tuition increases down. This should go beyond ultimatums and should be about finding ways to address the bloated administrative bodies that run each university and eat up a huge chunk of each university’s budget.
The goal, ultimately, should be to restore and increase higher education funding while finding ways to keep costs down.
Is this a naive hope for a state representative who has shown no sign of bucking his party’s leadership? Perhaps.
But Cotter is an ambitious politician, and becoming known as someone who fights for students and is not afraid to take on leaders in his own party might be an appealing image for him to craft.
And if students make their voices heard and demand better action from Cotter, that just might be the one he carves out for himself.
John Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.