• September 1, 2014

Michigan Lawmakers Attach Strings to State Higher-Education Spending

After several years of budget cuts, state lawmakers in Michigan gave higher education a 3-percent increase for the next fiscal year. But what some state universities have to gain from the budget may be lost in the cost of new restrictions meted out by legislators.

Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan, in Detroit, said the increase in higher-education spending was a step in the right direction but fell far short of the state's needs. Lawmakers will have to put an extra billion dollars into higher education over the next decade just to make up for the cuts in recent years, said Mr. Rothwell.

Higher-education spending was cut by 14 percent in the previous fiscal year and has fallen by more than 19 percent over all from 2007 to 2012, according to data from the Grapevine Project at Illinois State University.

The increased money will vary by institution based on improvements in graduation rates and research spending, or by granting more degrees in certain high-need areas.

And in order to qualify for that money—a tiny sliver of the $1.4-billion appropriation—institutions also will have to limit tuition increases to 4 percent or less.

On top of that, state legislators added language about social issues, including that Michigan State University will not qualify for an increase if it follows through on a requirement that incoming students have health insurance. The budget also requires universities to file extra reports with the Legislature on the number of stem-cell lines being used in research at the institutions, and to detail their efforts to accommodate students' religious beliefs in counseling programs (a requirement that stems from a pending lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University).

The most far-reaching restriction bars the institutions from having a relationship with nonprofit "worker centers" that protest against a Michigan business, a provision supported by the Michigan Restaurant Association, after the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan picketed and sued a restaurant it accused of mistreating workers. At the time, a graduate student in social work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor was completing a field assignment with the group.

Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said such a restriction was "remarkably damaging and intrusive," given the autonomy that Michigan's universities are guaranteed in the state Constitution.

"It's bad policy," Mr. Hurley said.

The legislation has been sent to Gov. Rick Snyder, who seems likely to sign it.

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