The Soaring Costs of Education, Excessive Compensation and Government in a Vacuum: SO WHAT IS GOING ON AT DELTA COLLEGE?

Posted In: Politics, Local, News, Local,   From Issue 677   By: Kim A Higgs

19th February, 2009     0

The debate I have initiated regarding the ever increasing costs of higher education has been mischaracterized and shifted to issues other than the real problems in our higher educational system.  Neither I, nor the taxpayers I represent, have suggested that the educational programs at Delta College are anything less than superior.  Delta College is an outstanding educational institution with a first class staff; but it is simply suffering the same problems that are affecting all other institutions of higher education in the United States.

The problem is not the quality of educational programs that are being provided but rather the cost of the same.

Unfortunately, like the cost of health insurance, the cost of a higher education is out of control.  The costs of both health insurance and higher education are increasing at a rate faster than the rate of inflation and faster than the ability of people to keep up with the rising costs. 

This issue was recently addressed in an article which appeared in the New York Times entitled "College May Become Unaffordable For Most In the U.S."  In this article it was stated: "The rising cost of college-even before the recession-threatens to put higher education out of reach for most Americans, according to the biennial report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 

Overall, the report found published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 while median family income rose 147 percent.  Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

In an editorial which appeared in the Detroit Free Press on February 24, 2008, the editorial staff noted that tuition increases for Michigan's 15 public universities were among the highest in the nation.  The editorial stated: "Michigan cannot keep pushing the importance of college and then allowing its families to be priced out of it.  State funds used to cover two-thirds of the cost of a college degree; now it's less than one third. 

Meanwhile, the percentage of family income swallowed by tuition has skyrocketed.  For families with students at four year universities, the cost in 2006 without financial aid was about 36% of an average household income in Michigan; even at community colleges, it was almost 25%.  Although the schools have done a commendable job of finding ways to help deserving students with loans, scholarships and grants, Michigan was still graded F on affordability in the most recent National Report Card on Higher Education.

And finances are a big reason why degrees aren't getting completed.  Despite the governor's ambitious rhetoric about doubling the number of college graduates in the state, Michigan has not since 2000 advanced above 34th place among the states in the percentage of adults over age 25 with college degrees-just 24.4% of the population according to Michigan Futures Inc."

The difficulty students are having paying the cost of their education was noted in an article posted by the U.S. News & World Report on January 9, 2009 wherein it was reported: "Colleges and universities are seeing more students unable to pay their second semester bills and in danger of being forced to drop out, according to a survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.  More than 65 percent of the 43 college registrars who responded to an association-wide E-mail survey said they had noted an increase in the unpaid bills this year.  Most colleges don't let students register for a new semester until they have paid their bill for the previous semester."

There can be little doubt that the U.S. economy is in a shambles and according to most economic experts things are going to get worse before they get better.  The only unresolved question is how bad will things get before they get better and how long will that take. 

So consider the situation in Michigan in particular. 

At present, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the United States.  According to a report published by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee on August 26, 2008, Michigan has suffered a 11.4% decrease in medium income of households between 1999 to 2007. Only two states in the United States had a larger decrease in household income than Michigan.  The average decrease in average household incomes through out the United States was only -1.4% compared to Michigan's -11.4% decrease.  In the United States, jobs are disappearing at a rate of 13 per minute.  Over 500,000 jobs have been lost in each of the past few months.  Major employers in the tri-city area have been eliminating jobs and decreasing wages and benefits for current and retired employees.

Against this backdrop, consider the recent actions of various state officials as compared to those of Delta College and other community colleges.  Michigan State employees have been under a wage freeze for an extended period of time and Governor Granholm has suggested that state officials reduce their salaries by 10%. 

Delta College, on the other hand, recently increased its President's salary by 11%.  Within the last week, Jackson Community College increased its President's salary by 42%.   Two years ago, the Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court voluntarily gave up their state supplied vehicles while Delta College raised its 2009 car allowance for its President to $9,000 per year.  While tri-city employees have had their benefits significantly reduced, Delta College increased the President's health insurance benefits, disability insurance benefits, and increased its contribution to her annuity plan. 

When college boards establish compensation packages for their presidents, the only wage comparisons they make are with other college presidents.  No attempts are made to compare college presidents' salaries with other governmental officials.

College and universities have been operating in a vacuum without any regard to what is happening in the general economy.  The Michigan Governor and other state officials have not had a pay raise in seven years, whereas the Delta College President has had a pay raise every year. College boards have been have been treating college presidents more like corporate CEO's than public servants. 

The Delta College President's compensation is higher than that of all other officials in Michigan's state government, including the governor.  While the average salary of all state governors in the United States is $126,000, the salary of the Delta College President at $212,779.  The Delta College President's salary exceeds that of the governors of 49 states and is higher than the base salary of U.S. Senators, Congressman, Justices of the United States Supreme Court, and all members of President Obama's cabinet. While the job of the Delta College President is extremely important, is the value of her service to the community greater than that of those public officials named above?

In addition to the financial burden that is being placed on students and taxpayers, I have also been concerned with the governance of Delta College.  Delta College trustees, like all elected officials, are required to take an oath of office and agree to uphold the Michigan Constitution and all state laws.  Unfortunately, as an attorney with 33 years specializing in municipal law, it is my opinion that various statutory and constitutional violations have been committed by the Delta College Board of Trustee and its President.              While I have suggested various alternatives to resolve the numerous legal issues involved, these suggestions have been characterized as threats rather than as attempts to amicably resolve legal differences of opinion.  As an attorney, I resort to litigation only after all other avenues of resolution have failed.  Unfortunately, that is the case in the current situation and litigation became the only avenue available to resolve the legal compliance issues raised.

As an officer of the court, I am precluded from pursuing frivolous litigation.   If I did, the courts could impose penalties on me. That has never happened to me in my 33 year legal career.  With a success rate of approximately 95% in challenging violations of the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, I will let my record speak for itself in response to the suggestion that the litigation I am pursuing on behalf of 48 taxpayers against the Delta College Board of Trustees, and its President, is frivolous. It is my intent to continue to challenge the high cost of education for students and taxpayers and to challenge breaches of public duty by governmental officials. 

Based on the current state of our economy, and the continued high cost of higher education, it is my opinion that trying to preserve the status quo is not a viable option.  I believe we need to make some significant changes in our current higher education system to insure equal access to all citizens seeking to improve their lives through the promise of a good education. 

Change is often difficult to achieve and is usually subject to criticism and resistance.  However, I do not plan to abandon my efforts in trying to protect the interests of students and taxpayers.  I am thankful for the input of citizens who have come forward and informed me that they support my efforts to try and insure equal access of all citizens to a good education, at an affordable cost, and my insistence on governance that complies with all constitutional and statutory requirements.

Kim Higgs is a practicing attorney of 33 years with experience as a municipal law specialist; township attorney; assistant prosecuting attorney in both Bay and Saginaw Counties; Bay County Corporation Counsel; elected Bay City Executive; County Manager of Essex County, New York (Lake Placid); County Administrator of Isabella County and Allegan County, Michigan; and elected Delta College Trustee.

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