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Michigan Higher Education Funding 101

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How much do you know about how Michigan funds its public universities and institutions of higher education and about how much it funds those institutions? David Bertram is associate vice president for state relations for Michigan State University and Jeremy Reuter is director of statewide advocacy. MSU is a publicly funded university, which means it receives state funds for operations.

How much funding do we receive and what areas of MSU receive funds in this process?

“The number changes a little bit every year, so the number I'm giving right now, which is $287 million is a number that we're getting this year,” says Bertram. “Now that's just in one line for one purpose. That's general operating dollars from the state of Michigan. In addition to that $287 million, AgBioResearch gets about $35 million and MSU Extension gets about $30 million. There are other smaller programs like Project Greeen, which is an annual program that does plant-based agriculture research. There are a number of other programs as well.

“When you add it all up, it's about $400 million a year, maybe a little under that for all of MSU. This is money that goes into our general fund, but not for Athletics. I would distinguish that no money from the state goes to Athletics. I'd also qualify that no money from student tuition goes into Athletics. Athletics is a completely standalone program; they're self-sustaining. They receive gifts from donors as well.”

“What I would add in there is that for the $287 million of general operations, that works out to be about 20 percent of our operating fund today,” adds Reuter. “Historically that number was much higher. And another point on Athletics is that the scholarships that students receive are funded by Athletics. The scholarships are for full tuition rates that Athletics has to cover. So as the cost of tuition rises, that's an increased cost for Athletics to have to be able to cover in their operating budget and in their revenue stream. So, while there are no direct dollars coming from the state going there, there is a correlation in terms of cost of operations for Athletics based on what the university's tuition is.”

With a need for a more educated workforce to meet the employment needs of today and in the future, Bertram and Reuter tell why then there isn’t more state funding for higher education.

David Bertram

“Once upon a time there was more it; unfortunately, it's not as high now as where we believe it should be,” Bertram says. “What's happened is a real transformation over a period of decades. From our perspective, we just need to raise the importance of higher education funding within the state budget. And that's not just an MSU thing; it's everybody.”

There are 15 public universities in Michigan, and they say investment in not only Michigan State University but higher education in the state of Michigan is an investment in our state. They also compare and contrast the funding history of higher education to other education funding in Michigan, like funding for K-12.

“We really don't want it to be about higher education versus K-12 or higher education versus community colleges because really we all work hand in hand, and, quite frankly, we've always said that if a student isn't taught well at the K-12 level, MSU is going to spend a lot of resources and dollars when they arrive on our campus to get them to where they need to be, to graduate them, and to have them be successful,” says Bertram. “We have a lot of student success programs in place, and we've been ramping up our percentage of students who are graduating. The last thing you want is to have someone spend thousands of dollars and then not get a degree.

“It’s not a competition, but K-12 has been funded better. I will also say that community colleges have been funded on a similar scale approach and are maybe doing a little better than our four-year institutions in the state.”

The duo talks more about the current budget process and the dynamics at play. And they talk about the challenge of the declining demographic of college-aged students in Michigan that is facing MSU and all the state’s 15 public universities. One thing that has helped the overall state budget is collecting taxes on internet sales. They also analyze some of the current budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year coming from the House and Senate.

Reuter says Spartans and higher education supporters can engage in the budget process and keep up with what's taking place by becoming a Spartan Advocate and supporting MI Spartan Impact.

“While the site is a huge source for our Spartan Advocates and our Spartan friends out there across the state, the country, and the world, it also serves as a great tool for legislators to understand the impact of MSU. Those decision-makers we've been talking about can see the same data and look at it from their district and see how much of an impact MSU’s land grant mission has in their area.”

Jeremy Reuter

Reuter shares some examples of advocacy work so potential advocates know what to expect when asked to engage. And Bertram adds that advocating for MSU and higher education “is not like a second job. It doesn't take that kind of a time commitment. It might be a couple of times a year that we ask for help. We would love to not have to do it. It would be nice if we were only sending out thank you notes. It’s only a few times a year and everyone is welcome to participate.”

“I would just encourage anybody listening that even if you don't sign up as a Spartan Advocate to engage with your state legislator about higher ed funding and the importance of it. We really think the conversation needs to flip a little bit. In the past six or eight years, there's been a trend of people saying ‘Well, do I really need to go to college? Do I need to get a degree?’ We really need to change that conversation to understand that roughly three quarters of the jobs that are out there are going to require a degree. While you might have a good paying job for a few years, to sustain a career you do need to have a degree. That hasn't changed, and job providers are still asking for degrees.

“So, it really is in people's best interest to get a degree. And the only way to make that affordable is to have the state commit to funding higher education. It's really that conversation we need to have. It needs to be casual, and it needs to be in the district at home when one sees their legislator in church, in the grocery store, or walking on the street. Those are the types of conversations we need to have, not just for MSU, but for all our institutions in Michigan.”

“When you speak with your representatives, make it as localized as possible. Talk not only of your personal experience here at Michigan State University but help them understand what we're doing in your backyard and across the state. Between AgBioResearch and MSU Extension, we've got research stations all across the state. MSU Extension operates in all 83 counties. MSU is across the state. That is part of our mission. It goes beyond just your personal experience here on campus.

Help them understand what we're doing in their backyard and make it as personal as possible. Because that investment in MSU really does go a long way, not only for degree attainment, but for the delivery of extension services and our agriculture community across the state. We play a very wide role and understanding what we do as a university here in the state of Michigan is really important for Spartans and for folks who may not affiliate as a Spartan but who understand that we are still in your backyard and we're there and we're helping in the community.”

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and streams at WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.