Originally published Jan. 15, 2012

Money was first on everyone’s minds Thursday at the Student Senate political forum, where local representatives gave the forum-goers a peek at the inner-workings of the state and federal government.

State Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville), State Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R) and Greg VanWoerkom, district director for U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R), took questions from the crowd during the event. While some students expressed concern for nationwide issues, many sought to know more about the recent state financial changes that have affected college students.

The legislators held similar stances on most issues, but Agema and Meekhof discussed different ideas of how the state should fund higher education institutions.

“I’d like to see a per-pupil funding basis,” Agema said, adding that a per-pupil funding model would bring GVSU tuition rates down.

Meekhof expressed support of a per-pupil model but said funding should also be determined by performance measures like graduation rates, merit and a high turnout of students with the skills necessary for the businesses Michigan “thinks it wants to invest in.”

“The people that don’t perform probably won’t get as much money or won’t get any money,” he said, but he voiced a confidence in GVSU’s ability to perform well. “The math and science students that leave here, graduated here, about 80 percent of them find jobs in Michigan. There is no other college, folks, in the state of Michigan that has anywhere near that kind of placement. Now, we should be rewarding Grand Valley because that’s the right way to do it. They get the lowest amount of appropriations — state aid — out of the budget for higher ed, and they do the most with it.”

Even with the legislators’ GVSU-supportive opinions, students sought answers for other financial issues such as the loss of the Michigan Promise scholarship, which Meekhof said was never an actual promise but simply an appropriation.

Similarly, VanWoerkom discussed potential changes to the Pell Grant, on which he said the U.S. is “spending record amounts of money.”

“What we are also seeing with Pell Grants is as Pell Grants increase, so do tuition costs,” he said. “So, there may be discussions about reforming a way to do Pell Grants so that they stick with the students rather than the university. But right now, you’re seeing a record amount of money be spent on Pell Grants and yet it’s not helping at all the debt that students are incurring.”

Students in attendance also expressed concern about the stricter bridge card regulations recently adopted in the state legislature.

However, Agema said Michigan’s newly enforced restrictions align with the rules of every other state in the U.S.

“Everybody who is competing for those bridge cards has to meet certain financial limitations and so forth to receive it, so we are exactly how all the other states are,” he said. “We had thousands of students that did not meet that. You know as well as I know, it was an easy thing to get. All the other states were abiding by it, and we weren’t.”

Agema said the old bridge card standards allowed people to commit welfare fraud too easily. Of the 40,000 Michigan students using bridge cards last year, about 30,000 were removed from the program because they failed to meet the requirements.

Among the few non-financial topics discussed was State Senate Bill 0258, which would grant minors amnesty if they brought an inebriated friend to a hospital while intoxicated. While Meekhof did not offer an opinion on the matter, Agema said he did not think the bill will meet much objection. The Senate will discuss the proposal later this summer.

On a final note, VanWoerkom and the legislators offered advice to students looking to graduate and gain employment in the next year.

VanWoerkom and Meekhof encouraged students to develop skills in the maths and sciences — specifically citing nursing, geology, manufacturing and engineering as occupations in high demand.

“It’s looking up,” VanWoerkom said.

However, Agema’s message had a different tone.

“I think in the next year or two, to be honest with you, a lot of the jobs are going to be outside the state of Michigan,” he said. “Jobs are where the businesses are, and I think in Michigan we lost track of that.”

Agema said the state is currently working to bring in more businesses, which will in turn secure more jobs. “We’re trying to make it so they wanna come here, and we’re edging our way there,” he said.


Original publication: http://www.lanthorn.com/article/2012/01/legislators_address_student_concerns_about_finance_education_in_gv_forum