News Story

Bill Advances To Make State University Funding Follow Students, Not Lobbyists

‘I see a sea of lobbyists here today’

A potentially significant reordering of state spending on higher education — one based on the number of students served rather than status and legacy — has been approved by a Michigan House committee.

The House Appropriations Higher Education subcommittee recently unanimously adopted the proposal from Chairman Rep. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, to scrap historic models used to set funding levels and move, over three years, to a per-pupil formula.

If enacted, the changes would dramatically increase state aid to some universities. Oakland University would see a 33.3% increase. Aid to Grand Valley State University would increase by 27.2%. The University of Michigan—Flint would get 18.6% more and the University of Michigan-Dearborn would benefit by 18.6% as well. But some flagship institutions and those that have traditionally received more favorable treatment would get less. The University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus would see a 13.4% drop and aid to Wayne State University would decline by 5.7%. Michigan Technological University would experience a 9.3% decline, and Northern Michigan University, a 7.8% drop.

Total state taxpayer funding of colleges and universities would remain virtually unchanged at nearly $1.5 billion, with eight of the four-year universities receiving an increase in funding and seven seeing a cut. According to the state Capitol newsletter MIRS News, Huizenga said, “Some win and some lose and that’s always difficult.”

Rep. Stephen Johnson, a Wayland Republican, also expressed frustration with the status quo, according to the Gongwer news service. “I see a sea of lobbyists here today, all trying to get as much money for their institution as possible. That is not how the system should work. We should not be deciding this. That should be the students.”

The legislation would shift the state away from rewarding universities based on the allegiances of former legislators and the persuasive power of university lobbyists and toward the model it uses to fund K-12 education, Huizenga said.

Basing state financial support on the enrollment choices made by college and university students has been supported in some quarters for years.

In 2015, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy addressed what was then the allocation of state spending for Grand Valley State University. “When the university the state says is doing the second-best in providing value to students is receiving among the least amount of funding per student, there’s something wrong with the formula,” said Jarrett Skorup, director of communications and marketing for the Mackinac Center.

State Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, earlier this year introduced legislation to tie state funding to enrollments by Michigan residents.

After the subcommittee vote, Berman said, “It’s a great start. It’s kind of common sense.”

Phasing in the change to allow universities to adjust (and including graduate students in the per-pupil count) is a reasonable accommodation, he said.

But “as a baseline, all universities should be funding on a per-pupil basis,” he said.

The bill’s prospects, however, remain uncertain.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget proposal for 2021-22 was essentially based on traditional funding formulas, with a 2% overall increase in funding.

A spokesman for the state association representing public university presidents has called Berman’s proposal “spectacularly self-defeating.”

“A one-size-fits-all approach is not good policy” said Don Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, “It’s not done anywhere in the country.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.