Data Over Dogma: Facts Matter

In Accountability by Bob Murphy

Universities are many things to many people—classrooms, workforce development engines, research and development institutions, and beacons of civic pride. But universities are also an ancient endeavor, created in something close to their current form at the University of Bologna in 1088, predating the modern nation-state by 560 years. In those intervening 929 years, one thing has remained constant: the teaching of and searching for the truth. The very premise of higher education depends on facts, and critically examining statements for veracity.

It is particularly ironic, then, that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy got so many facts wrong in a recent commentary in which it questioned whether public universities should receive state support. Of course, we know the value that public universities provide to a state. Aside from the intrinsic, moral good of having a more educated populace, as well as the better economic, social, and health outcomes of college graduates, funding state universities funds higher state incomes for all.

Nonetheless, the recent Mackinac Center commentary was egregiously poor in its disregard for the facts. My colleague, Dan Hurley, has written a more optimistic response in Bridge Magazine. Here, on the other hand, I can engage in a more thorough point by point refutation. Let’s review the list of the errors and misrepresentations presented in the Center’s commentary:

  • Wrong Data on State Appropriations: “The state funds colleges at wildly different rates, ranging from about $2,700… to around $11,500 per pupil…”
    • NOT TRUE. The state appropriated a range of $2,711 to $8,568 per student in FY2016. The Mackinac Center decided to leave out select students when they made their calculations and didn’t disclose that in their column. In doing so, they overstated the highest per student funding by 34%.1Perhaps a gentle grader would award half credit for getting the bottom figure correct.
  • Wrong Analysis of Graduation Rates: “The typical Michigan university struggles to graduate more than 60 percent of its students.”
    • MISLEADING. According to the State of Michigan, 67% of students at Michigan public universities graduate within the national standard of six years. Only 44% of these students are even attending full-time, making our state university graduates’ successes even more notable. Universities aren’t mandatory K-12 schools—our students aren’t dropouts if they transfer to another institution or if don’t finish in a set time period; instead, they often continue to take classes on their own schedule. Our students include single parents, adults seeking retraining for the new workforce, and students working full-time.
  • Wrong Attributions: “According to MIRS News, University of Michigan president [sic] Mark Schlissel said, ‘This isn’t really conservatism, this is radicalism.’ (The income tax cut would have been small enough that the state budget was projected to grow even without this additional revenue.)”
    • NOT TRUE. This refers to the recent showdown in the Michigan House of Representatives over a complete repeal of the state income tax, which was later negotiated down to a tax cut before the vote failed. President Schlissel, and other university presidents and chancellors, spoke with members of the House and was quoted above, on Feb. 21, 2017—almost two days before the 2 AM vote on the amended HB 4001. The Mackinac Center incorrectly attributes President Schlissel’s comments on the original version of HB 4001 to a later draft of the bill that did not even exist at the time. Meanwhile, HB 4001 in its original form would have led to the complete repeal of the income tax without a replacement, nearly wiping out the state’s entire general fund. And that is radicalism, at best—I’d go further and call it nihilism.
  • Wrong State Budget Data: “Since [2007], the state budget has increased by more than $10 billionsignificantly more than inflation.”
    • NOT TRUE. Here it is in glorious color: data from the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency shows the size of the state budget from FY2007 to FY2017. And guess what—when you adjust for inflation, that’s only a $4.5 billion increase in the budget. Further, one can plainly see that the increase is almost all federal funding. That’s funding usually dedicated for a specific purpose. If HB 4001 had passed, most of that federal funding wouldn’t go away. Funding for the state’s main checkbook, the general fund, would—and with it, funding for universities, community colleges, cities and counties, roads, and prisons. According to the equally nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency, general fund revenue is 29% below FY2000 levels when accounting for inflation, which continues to exist despite attempts to wish it away. Even including the federal funding, the whole budget increased 9.1% above inflation, which is not a significant increase over a period of eleven years, especially given the growth due to Medicaid expansion.

In sum, the Center’s commentary falls far short in presenting a fact-based argument. None of this is a surprise. The Mackinac Center sings from only one hymnal—cut, slash, or outright eradicate state investment in anything that supports the public interest, including public higher education. A state that followed its prescriptions would find itself broke, without talent, without quality job opportunities, and without adequate and safe infrastructure.

State universities demonstrate their value and efficiency through a host of accountability metrics. They serve as dynamic economic engines that build the new Michigan while holding student net price to about the national average or below. They return salaries for graduates better than the national average. They are graduating students by the thousands, even though state funding is 36% (or $801.6 million) lower than FY2002 after inflation.

Denying these basic facts—the truth—isn’t bold, informed policy analysis. It’s blind dogma.

Bob Murphy is the Director of University Relations and Policy at the Michigan Association of State Universities.

@BobWMurphy     @MASUmichigan

   [ + ]

1. Perhaps a gentle grader would award half credit for getting the bottom figure correct.