Can college ever be affordable again?

Maybe not. That’s the concern of Michigan observers. As Peter Luke writes in a very interesting piece in the Grand Rapids Press:

Congratulations, Michigan. After years of cutting state aid to its public universities, the average cost of tuition and fees for the academic year that begins this month has for the first time topped $10,000. To be exact: $10,416, up $683 from fall of last year.

So it’s interesting that lawmakers say they’re doing students and their parents a big favor by riding herd on schools like Michigan State University to adhere to tuition restraint language in the budget. Never mind that the Legislature has spent a decade disinvesting in the state’s nationally regarded system of higher education.

This is a common problem in the state university funding discussion. The state complains that the universities are spendthrift and should be working to “control costs.” Meanwhile the legislatures give less money to public schools and expect this, somehow, to work out. And tuition skyrockets.

As Luke points out, “if state aid had merely kept pace with inflation on an annual basis in the past 10 years, per-student spending by the state would be about $4,000 more than it was in 2002.” But that’s not what happened, and Michigan will cut the higher education budget by another 15 percent this year. Furthermore:

The less spending the Legislature provides the universities, the more control lawmakers seemingly seek to assert over them. And not just over tuition. Budget language that requires reports on embryonic stem cell research activities and discourages benefits for the domestic partners of employees.

Maybe it’s time to just give up on this farce, Luke suggests. If the legislature isn’t going to support public colleges, they just shouldn’t be public colleges. Remove legislative control and allow the schools to operate independently. Take the (paltry) money the states provide the schools and give it directly to students; let them use it as individual scholarships to go to school wherever they want.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer