Searching for right reform for colleges

Guest Editorial
Michigan’s public universities are under fire, and rightly so. Most raised tuition by nearly 7 percent this fall, continuing a decade-long arc that is threatening to put higher education out of reach for middle-class families. Throw in redundancy in some educational programs and a lack of others within the 15 taxpayer-supported universities, and the system needs a look.

The head of the state House subcommittee that oversees higher education funding is offering one idea for reform. State Rep. Bob Genetski II (R-Saugatuck) wants an independent commission to explore whether to put all 15 universities under one governing board.

Frankly, Genetski’s idea makes no sense. While we agree it’s vital that Michigan’s policymakers address the university system, it should not be at the expense of freezing out public involvement and transparency, and putting more power in the hands of college administrators. That’s what would happen with one giant university board.

Each of this state’s publicly supported universities has its own board. A few — the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State — are chosen by voters, while the rest are appointed by the governor. The approach gives the public input into how these boards are chosen, and it gives oversight to those who are intensely interested in each institution’s fate.

The biggest shortcoming with a single board for all 15 universities is that it puts too much power in each school’s administrators. A universal board would have only so much attention to give to a Saginaw Valley State University or even flagship schools U-M or MSU. These universities teach tens of thousands of students and are major employers, and should not be left to operate without oversight.

While we reject Genetski’s idea, we heartily endorse the notion of tackling the failings in Michigan’s higher education system. Here are two approaches:

1. Create a “certificate of need” system. When hospitals and health-care systems want to expand, in most states they must demonstrate the need. Michigan could apply the concept to its public universities and community colleges. Force them to justify their desire for a major new study program, say when there are similar courses at universities in the region.

This would manage the growth in programs in Michigan’s higher-education arena and prevent out-of-control competition.

2. Lawmakers and the governor should put pressure on colleges to limit tuition hikes. That happened this year when Gov. Rick Snyder restored some cuts in state aid as long as tuition growth topped out at 7.1 percent.

Even so, asking families to fork over 7 percent more is absurd, given that many people are not getting pay increases in this economy. The Legislature controls the taxpayer money that flows into public universities, and it should insist that administrators are reining in spending.

Our suggestion: The Legislature should leave university boards alone, but it should not hesitate to push schools toward goals that are in the public’s interest. There’s plenty of opportunity for reform in Michigan’s public colleges.