As the recent news of Starbucks offering to pay for its employees college tuition reveals, higher education is not a privilege of the elite.
That’s a message education leaders in Michigan have been trying to illustrate to lawmakers as funding for higher education was reduced by about $1 billion in total cuts over the past 10 years. Back in 2011, the leader of another national chain pitched in to persuade Michigan lawmakers to include Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal for a 6 percent increase in funding higher education in the state’s 2015 budget.
“The fact that the pizza guy is coming to them to talk about higher education funding is unexpected,” said Patrick Doyle, the CEO of Domino’s Pizza.
Doyle, as a part of the Business Leaders for Michigan, argued that the state was not producing enough candidates with the skills to run and operate the online component of his Ann-Arbor-based company, which is one of the state’s biggest employers. In fact, just three in 10 adults in Michigan held a college degree—including only some, but certainly not all, of the state’s lawmakers themselves.

The Business Leaders for Michigan coalition, which is comprised of Michigan’s highest-ranking business and university leaders, contends that investing in higher education is integral to growth — just as much as population or jobs programs.

“It’s a producer of economic impact. It’s part of the overall economy,” said Doug Rothwell, president of the business leaders.

The coalition recognized higher education as an asset in its first release of the Michigan Turnaround Plan in 2009. The plan identified the state’s major strengths and areas for potential growth, which included Michigan’s higher education system as a major economic asset. Like elsewhere in the country, the group found a disparity between the available jobs and the workforce’s skills. Michigan ranks 30th for the nation’s educated workforce.

So why are they not being filled? In part, it’s because of the [lack of] college affordability,” Rothwell said.

The group began lobbying for performance-based funding as a means of increasing cash for colleges in 2011 before lawmakers allocated $21.9 million in new appropriations in 2014. Success rates are determined by such factors as graduation rates and administrative costs.

Though support has been gradual, Governor Snyder’s 2015 budget includes the largest increase to higher education funding in more than a decade. The boost — $80 million out of the $1.4 billion in funding — includes a 3.2 percent cap on tuition increases in order to receive full state funding.

Michigan’s inclusion of higher education funding is part of a greater trend sweeping the country. Only nine states have decided not to include some sort of funding increase for the 2015 budget, and 25 states have implemented policy for performance-based funding for their higher education institutions.

While performance metrics aren’t ideal for larger universities, the method does benefit all types of colleges and universities as a whole. As the Business Leaders for Michigan have illustrated, the education system is better off when higher education receives a bigger piece of the funding pie.

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