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NMU will face challenges in new higher ed funding

May 8, 2012
The Mining Journal

Lansing is moving steadily toward a new funding model for higher education, and we hope area colleges and universities don't get left behind.

The Michigan Legislature is making a shift toward "performance-based" funding, and Northern Michigan University officials - along with other university boards around the state - are trying to predict how they'll fare when measured by a new set of yardsticks.

Three 2013 higher ed budgets - proposed by the House, Senate and Gov. Rick Snyder - are making the rounds in Lansing.

The governor's budget, for example, gives an additional $36.2 million general fund dollars to state universities. A 3 percent funding increase would be distributed based on the growth in the number of undergraduate degree completions; the number of undergraduate completions in "critical skills areas" such as science, technology, engineering, math and healthcare; the number of undergraduate Pell Grant recipients; and keeping tuition increases below a state recommended level.

The common feature of all the proposed budgets is tying university funding to these measurable goals. It's a laudable idea but one that could hurt NMU and similar rural universities with different priorities and a greater percentage of nontraditional students.

NMU could face challenges with several of the new funding provisions. The school has graduated record numbers of students over the past few years, so with demographic declines expected it could be hard to sustain year-over-year growth.

Another problem: only a handful of NMU students graduate with engineering or math degrees, though NMU President Les Wong said he is hoping to broaden the state's definition of technology. Many students from Northern's Art and Design department - now the university's largest - often go on to work in high-tech fields.

And Wong thinks the potential buyout of Marquette General Health System by Duke LifePoint Healthcare could also help boost the number of health care degrees awarded by the university. That should bring more performance-based money.

We also hope that any performance-based funding model takes into account NMU's appeal to students who may - for geographical or financial reasons - begin their college careers at Northern and then transfer elsewhere to finish their degree.

There's nothing wrong with holding state universities to high standards before we award them taxpayer dollars. But we do need to recognize that all institutions of higher learning aren't the same. There's no one-size-fits-all college education, and we shouldn't expect one funding scheme to work for every college.



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