Politics & Prejudices: We don't need no higher education

Jun 24, 2015 at 1:00 am

Eastern Michigan University took a lot of heat last week for raising college tuition 7.8 percent. That's not great for the students, who are now looking at a $42,000 tuition bill for four years at what is still one of the state's cheaper universities.

But guess what: It isn't EMU's fault, but that of our politicians, who have systematically underfunded higher education for years.

They've been making it harder and harder to get a college degree, just as one becomes more critically necessary.

With apologies to Pink Floyd, we do need higher education — desperately. People need it to survive; our poor state needs it, if it's to ever thrive again. Yet we — our politicians and those who own them — have made an education harder and harder to get.

Michigan once took great pride in making higher education affordable. My parents had essentially no money, but I had no problem paying for Michigan State in the early 1970s.

I got some scholarships, worked summers and saved, lived at home. Nobody can do that now. Instead, they come out strapped with $30,000 or more in loans they may never be able to pay back.

And kids — and parents — put down your smartphones for a minute, stop texting, and listen: If you aren't mad as hell about this, there's something seriously wrong with you.

By the way, those stinking bozos your parents have been electing to office are a big part of the problem. According to the nonprofit College Board, which was created to help expand access to higher education, Michigan is now one of the five worst states in the nation in terms of supporting funding for higher education.

Get it now?

Time was when it didn't matter so much. If you didn't want to go beyond high school, you could get a job bending metal in the plants and actually achieve something like a middle-class lifestyle.

But those days are gone forever. They ain't hiring on the line at Oldsmobile or almost anywhere else these days. When they do, new workers are paid a fraction of what old ones were.

Not enough to buy a house; not really enough to buy a new car, either. Good paying, low-skilled jobs are virtually extinct.

You can't support yourself working fast-food jobs. So what can you do? For some, a good, strong technical community college education is the answer. Gov. Rick Snyder loves trade schools, and is fond of saying a welder can get a job anywhere in this state in five minutes.

I have infinite respect for my plumber and electrician. But those trades won't provide the new economy jobs we need, or be sufficient to satisfy many people's professional desires or intellectual ambition and curiosity.

Today, the presidents of Michigan State and the University of Michigan admit it costs more than $100,000 to get a four-year education at those schools. Isn't that obscene?

What kid from Lincoln Park can come up with that?

Rick Snyder and his buddies in the legislature gave businesses a multibillion-dollar tax cut in the first year of his administration, cutting higher education to do so. Have they created jobs in anything like the number needed to make up for that lost revenue?

You know the answer. Starving higher education to give wealthy businessmen a tax cut is the moral equivalent of stealing the money for your children's breakfast to go gamble at the track.

Healthy societies put children first. Every generation of Americans has wanted the next generation to have a better life than they've had ... until now.

Want to do something about this? Here's a suggestion: Only elect politicians to statewide office who are willing to show you that your kids are more important than they are, and you are.

That's not only morally right, it's practically sound. Otherwise ... who's going to pay for your nursing home, comrade?

Calling a Con-Con?

Five years ago, I argued that Michigan's present system of government was broken beyond repair, and that we needed to call a convention to write a new state constitution.

You might not know this, but our current constitution requires that voters be asked every 16 years whether they want a constitutional convention. The last time they said yes was 1960.

That led to the present constitution. However, it has a number of flaws that have gradually become more serious over time. It forbids a graduated income tax. It does nothing to stop today's outrageous and unrepresentative gerrymandering, and it makes it far too easy for a special-interest group to slap an amendment on the ballot.

One of those amendments, the one forcing mandatory term limits, has done more than anything else to ruin state government.

So I argued in 2010 that we needed to try again. Though a couple of wise men like Grosse Pointe's John Axe agreed with me, my suggestion was mostly ignored or treated with eye-rolling derision.

Democrats, often best known these days for rank cowardice, told me that while yes, the present system stunk, calling a convention would just be too dangerous.

They feared that tea party know-nothings, members of the religious right, and those bought-and-paid-for to represent the 1 percent, would get a majority of the delegates. So it lost.

But guess what: Things have gotten steadily worse! On June 14, Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson, that pillar of the corporate journalism establishment, wrote: "I maintain that we did ourselves a tragic disservice in 2010, when we passed on the ... chance to call a constitutional convention."

Well, that's clearly right. But where was the Freep then? But don't worry; we'll get another chance to call a convention in ... 2026. That is, if we haven't all starved to death before that.

Last week I called the Michigan Secretary of State's office to ask if the process could be jump-started, if, say, people signed petitions to do so. Alas, the answer seems to be no.

According to Chris Thomas, the director of elections, the constitution (Article XII, Section 3) appears to say that we only get to vote on this every 16 years. However, it does seem to say that the legislature could pass a law calling for a convention earlier.

Yes, I'm sure they would be hot to create something that might threaten that status quo that got them all there.

Have fun holding your breath.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.