An Open Letter to President Obama
December 16, 2011
Dear Mr. President,
Your recent meeting with college presidents is the best Christmas present I could have hoped for.
By bringing together higher education leaders to discuss college affordability, you have elevated a thorny issue that demands a national conversation because of its impact on all sectors of society. The cost of attending college is one of the most serious matters facing a country that seeks to strengthen its global competitiveness. How we resolve this dilemma requires collaboration, sacrifice and hard choices.
American higher education – particularly public higher education – is one of the monumental achievements of our country. No other nation can rival the innovation, creativity and intellectual fervor of our universities. Our institutions are responsible for America’s knowledge security – an intellectual wellbeing that advances health and medicine, business, social science, the arts, public policy and national defense.
And yet college is costly – too costly for some families. To meet the myriad needs of students and society, we absolutely must find ways to provide a college education at a cost that is sustainable. President Thomas Jefferson was rightfully adamant that a cornerstone of democracy is education for all, “from the richest to the poorest.”
Higher education is a public good currently lacking public support. There is no stronger trigger for rising costs at public universities and colleges than declining state support. The University of Michigan and our state’s 14 other public institutions have been ground zero for funding cuts. The state’s significant disinvestment in higher education has been challenging: a 15 percent cut in the last year alone, and a reduction of more than 30 percent over the last decade.
We have worked extremely hard to mitigate the impact of these cuts on students and families. We must and will do more, but also offer recommendations that may benefit all of higher education.
First and foremost, it is essential that states reinvest in their public colleges and universities. Not doing so is shortsighted and threatens to cripple remarkable institutions of learning. The University of California system is admired worldwide, yet its rapid dismantling because of underfunding is distressing; this is just the most dramatic example of starved higher education budgets nationwide.
Second, American business, to remain globally competitive, has a vested interest in the talent and research embodied in higher education. As employers of our graduates, business leaders must advocate for strong, consistent funding of higher education. The Business Leaders of Michigan, for example, is a private organization partnering with our state’s three research universities to help reignite the Michigan economy. These executives advocate increasing our state investment in higher education from its current status of 38th in the nation to the top 10. This collective voice of support is encouraging and powerful.
Third, private support no longer is a luxury, but rather a necessity. Philanthropy has always been a cornerstone of America’s private universities; the culture of giving back to one’s alma mater is ingrained in students from their first days on campus. Public universities must look more to alumni and friends for support, particularly for scholarships. As president, I challenged Michigan alumni to fund need-based scholarships for undergraduates, and they responded with nearly $70 million; this came after raising $540 million in a capital campaign to support students. Universities have an obligation to ask, and alumni should feel equally obligated to give back.
Finally, universities themselves must continue to cut costs. It may not always feel so for families, but at Michigan we have cut $235 million in operational costs in the last eight years to help offset tuition increases. We have eliminated or consolidated hundreds of jobs. We have asked employees to pay more for their health care. Only one budget item is sacrosanct and that is financial aid; here we are adding dollars. The result is that for many of our low- to middle-income resident students, it actually costs less to attend Michigan today than in 2004, and their loan burdens are lower than in previous years.
Mr. President, you have two wonderful daughters; I have two beautiful grandchildren. Parents and grandparents throughout the country want a secure, productive future for our young, and that future will demand a college education. As a former college professor, you know the rewards of seeing students grow intellectually, exercise critical thinking, and begin to shape their communities. This transformative experience of higher learning contributes to the overall wellbeing of our nation.
The onus is now on all of us – elected officials, university presidents, business leaders, philanthropists and parents – to collaborate on effective answers. I welcome being part of this critical national conversation and I trust that together America can find solutions.
You have my best wishes for a warm holiday season.
Mary Sue Coleman
Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan and chair of the Association of American Universities.