Legislative Testimony (March 25, 2021)

Michigan House Subcommittee on Higher Education
March 25, 2021

Chair Huizenga, Vice Chairs Brabec and Johnson and other distinguished members of the committee:

Thank you for allowing me to address the committee this morning.

Our chancellor, Domenico Grasso, has been called away to university board meetings this morning. He extends his sincere regrets for not being here and his deep appreciation for your work and support of higher education.

My name is Sue Alcock and I am the provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. It is my pleasure to be here with you today to talk about the great and game-changing things happening at the UM-Dearborn.

The student population at UM-Dearborn looks like southeast Michigan — diverse, working-class, driven and striving for success. Many of our students take classes while caring for dependents or working full time. Nearly half are the first in their families to attend college. 42 percent of the new student population in Fall 2020 were the first to attend college. They are also a vital part of the future of Michigan's economy: 90 percent of our graduates find work and live in Michigan, especially southeast Michigan. Our university prides itself on being a springboard to success for the people of our state and, for many, our degree is part of a necessary foundation to realizing a clear and achievable path to a better and achievable future.

Our graduates stay in Michigan because a UM-Dearborn degree leads to good, high-paying jobs. They earn the second highest starting salary among the 15 public universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education scorecard.

As the only fully-commuter public university in the state, we are dedicated to helping as many Michiganders as possible, as flexible as possible, receive a college degree.  We are ranked as the best regional public university in Michigan for Social Mobility by US News and World Report. The university has been ranked in the top four among regional public colleges and universities in the Midwest. I would also like to add: our chancellor is an Army veteran, and one of the things that makes all of us proud is that we are considered one of the best public universities for veterans. Our Office of Veteran Affairs is honored to organize the veteran moment on the sidelines before U-M football games on Saturdays at the Big House. 

UM-Dearborn continues to succeed in its mission to provide state residents with access to an excellent, cost-effective education that will make their lives better, happier and healthier. 90 percent of our state allocation goes directly to student support. In our case 93 percent of our students are Michiganders so this money is a great investment in the people of our state. We gladly reach out to offer a warm ‘hands up’ to the working men and women who want to use education as a ladder to future opportunities.

For example, we have recently introduced into our curriculum a theme of Urban Futures, which will open up more pathways for our students to develop skills that will help them find successful local careers and contribute to solutions across the state — from large urban areas like Detroit to more rural settings like Michigan’s upper peninsula. A key facet of this research and practice-based learning involves autonomous transportation and we are already seeing those skills deployed in Michigan with the new Detroit-to-Ann Arbor self-driving vehicle corridor and the Grand Rapids Autonomous Vehicle Initiative. We will also look for insights from behavioral psychology and other fields involved in such developments as well as business models that will lead to its success. We are confident that our work in this program, and many others, will help our state maintain its leadership position in the future of mobility and help solve issues faced by the population centers in our state.

We are currently following a strategic plan that will allow us to continue and even better serve the public's higher education needs. A copy was shared in advance of this testimony.

Responding to the Pandemic

The pandemic has hit higher education hard across the country, but we believe that UM-Dearborn has navigated the challenges very well. We made good decisions involving cost-cutting strategies, furloughs and a hiring freeze to name a few. During this time we never compromised our commitment to providing a quality learning environment for our students. Classes that needed to be taught in person were taught in person. Our community — faculty and staff — took on the challenges associated with remote learning with the energy and optimism needed to remain consistent with our high standards.

We are now looking forward to the next academic year. The fall semester will have more of a pre-COVID feel. We will be holding an in-person commencement this spring, and we have begun the process of restarting university-sanctioned co-curricular activities for students.

Keeping Costs Low

The people of Michigan have long supported higher education, founding our flagship university before we even became a state. Working with state leaders, we have a responsibility to keep higher education costs low for Michiganders. UM-Dearborn has done everything it can to make obtaining a college degree affordable without sacrificing quality. We will continue to do so.

The cost to educate a student with a degree that will help them find a successful, high-paying career costs around $22,000 per academic year. Of that total, the state of Michigan supplies us with roughly $3,600 per academic year per student. Since we know that nearly half of our students are from working class families, we've taken prudent action to trim costs even more in order to prevent our alumni from graduating with a high and problematic amount of debt.  

The university recently restructured tuition policies to permit most full-time undergraduate students to take 12 or more credit hours without paying additional tuition. This "block tuition" structure encourages undergraduate students to take increased course loads and to graduate more quickly at a reduced tuition rate. Students who complete 15 credit hours per semester will be on track to graduate in four years, resulting in savings of more than $13,500 in tuition costs.

Recognizing that the cost of college goes beyond just tuition, we have also worked diligently to minimize other fees, such as registration and parking fees.

So far, this model has proven to be successful. Despite the pandemic, we have seen credit hours increase over this past academic year. This is because our students view higher education as the best path to greater opportunity.

On top of our change in tuition modeling, we have also taken on the task to more prudently run university operations and work to diversify our revenue streams. This year we are building new budget models to find even more ways to pass savings onto our students while at the same time building our university reserves.

How the State of Michigan Can Help Our Students

State leaders can help us maintain a high quality and accessible education by increasing base-budget funding for higher education, beginning next fiscal year, particularly at regional universities like ours. Every dollar provided by the state goes directly to student support, especially working-class students. Funding of this kind goes a long way toward making a more robust workforce and a vibrant economy that lifts everyone in Michigan while also lowering the debt burden on this rising generation. It plants the seeds and cultivates the growth of social mobility.

Another way state leaders could help our students would be to approve capital projects. We have now completed and opened our new Engineering Lab Building (ELB), and we are expecting to see great results. We are grateful for the $30 million of state support for this building. The new ELB is student-focused but industry-driven. It will inspire collaboration, innovation and cross-disciplinary teamwork, which will help students acquire the skills they need to compete and support faculty in developing technological breakthroughs to power Michigan's industries. It will serve as a legacy to future generations of Michiganders, and for that we thank you. Our next project involves major renovations to our campus library, which is increasingly a dedicated major student gathering space on campus. Activities in a renovated library would not only provide necessary learning space on campus but allow us to take the methods we've adopted to teach remotely during the pandemic to reach even more students who would otherwise not have access to a higher education.

This pandemic has shown the importance of regional commuter universities like UM-Dearborn. We are a launchpad to success that is accessible for the people of our community. As the region recovers from the negative impact of this terrible pandemic, being close to home, to family and jobs, while also being affordable — and without sacrificing quality — will matter much more than ever before for many Michigan students. Our campus structure's uniqueness has always expanded access to college in southeast Michigan, but this pandemic year has shown UM-Dearborn to be a strength of the state's higher education system. As always, we stand ready to support students in Michigan as they continue towards a degree that will help them find, and build, a better, stronger future for all.

Thank you for having me here today. UM-Dearborn is always ready to be a resource for our state's leaders, please let us know how we can help you! I look forward to your questions.

Office of the Chancellor

1070 - Administration Building
4901 Evergreen Road
Dearborn, MI 48128
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Phone: 313-593-5500
Fax: 313-593-5204