12/16/2011 12:42 pm ET

U-M's Mary Sue Coleman Writes Obama On College Affordability, Occupy Protests U-M Costs

When University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman made a Christmas wish, she didn't write a letter to Santa; she addressed one to President Obama instead.

In Ian open letter, Coleman commended Obama for calling attention to the "thorny issue" of higher education affordability, but wrote that as a country the United States "absolutely must find ways to provide a college education at a cost that is sustainable." But while Coleman is pressing for reforms on the national stage, some students say she isn't doing enough at her own university.

Coleman's letter made four recommendations for reducing costs at colleges and universities across the country based on her experience at U-M: States should reinvest in public higher education; business leaders should advocate for funding; private donations should be considered a necessary support; and universities should continue to cut costs across the board -- except for financial aid.

Coleman called Michigan's public four-year institutions "ground zero for funding cuts," noting they took a 15 percent cut in the last year and 30 percent over the last decade. U-M has cut $235 million in operational costs in the last eight years.

A group of students brought their own concerns about U-M's affordability not to President Obama, but to Coleman and U-M's board.

On Thursday, the day before Coleman's letter was posted, Occupy U-M protesters spoke out at a Board of Regents meeting against the school's tuition increases. Approximately 20 people took over the meeting and left shortly after reading a speech.

Protesters said the school is run like a business that sells education to those who can afford it, the Free Press reports.

Occupy U-M pointed out that tuition has increased 233 percent since 1990, to about $12,000 a year for in-state undergraduates, and asked regents to be more accountable to the public, the Detroit News reports.

A recent report from the College Board showed that college costs rose much more quickly than cost-of-living inflation for the 2011-2012 school year. As has been the case for several years, public school costs are increasing more rapidly than those of private four-year schools.

The difficulties of student loan debt and the cost of higher education are two of the issues that the Occupy movement has continually protested. Last month, the national Occupy Student Debt campaign intitated a million-person pledge drive for student borrowers to default on their loans.

Obama recently held a conference with university presidents about college affordability, but Coleman, who is also chairwoman of the Association of American Universities, did not attend due to a scheduling conflict, according to the Free Press.

Coleman's entire letter, first posted on the University of Michigan website, appears below.

"Dear Mr. President,

Your recent meeting with college presidents is the best Christmas present I could have hoped for.

By bringing together higher education leaders to discuss college affordability, you have elevated a thorny issue that demands a national conversation because of its impact on all sectors of society. The cost of attending college is one of the most serious matters facing a country that seeks to strengthen its global competitiveness. How we resolve this dilemma requires collaboration, sacrifice and hard choices.

American higher education – particularly public higher education – is one of the monumental achievements of our country. No other nation can rival the innovation, creativity and intellectual fervor of our universities. Our institutions are responsible for America’s knowledge security – an intellectual wellbeing that advances health and medicine, business, social science, the arts, public policy and national defense.

And yet college is costly – too costly for some families. To meet the myriad needs of students and society, we absolutely must find ways to provide a college education at a cost that is sustainable. President Thomas Jefferson was rightfully adamant that a cornerstone of democracy is education for all, “from the richest to the poorest.”

Higher education is a public good currently lacking public support. There is no stronger trigger for rising costs at public universities and colleges than declining state support. The University of Michigan and our state’s 14 other public institutions have been ground zero for funding cuts. The state’s significant disinvestment in higher education has been challenging: a 15 percent cut in the last year alone, and a reduction of more than 30 percent over the last decade.

We have worked extremely hard to mitigate the impact of these cuts on students and families. We must and will do more, but also offer recommendations that may benefit all of higher education.

First and foremost, it is essential that states reinvest in their public colleges and universities. Not doing so is shortsighted and threatens to cripple remarkable institutions of learning. The University of California system is admired worldwide, yet its rapid dismantling because of underfunding is distressing; this is just the most dramatic example of starved higher education budgets nationwide.

Second, American business, to remain globally competitive, has a vested interest in the talent and research embodied in higher education. As employers of our graduates, business leaders must advocate for strong, consistent funding of higher education. The Business Leaders of Michigan, for example, is a private organization partnering with our state’s three research universities to help reignite the Michigan economy. These executives advocate increasing our state investment in higher education from its current status of 38th in the nation to the top 10. This collective voice of support is encouraging and powerful.

Third, private support no longer is a luxury, but rather a necessity. Philanthropy has always been a cornerstone of America’s private universities; the culture of giving back to one’s alma mater is ingrained in students from their first days on campus. Public universities must look more to alumni and friends for support, particularly for scholarships. As president, I challenged Michigan alumni to fund need-based scholarships for undergraduates, and they responded with nearly $70 million; this came after raising $540 million in a capital campaign to support students. Universities have an obligation to ask, and alumni should feel equally obligated to give back.

Finally, universities themselves must continue to cut costs. It may not always feel so for families, but at Michigan we have cut $235 million in operational costs in the last eight years to help offset tuition increases. We have eliminated or consolidated hundreds of jobs. We have asked employees to pay more for their health care. Only one budget item is sacrosanct and that is financial aid; here we are adding dollars. The result is that for many of our low- to middle-income resident students, it actually costs less to attend Michigan today than in 2004, and their loan burdens are lower than in previous years.

Mr. President, you have two wonderful daughters; I have two beautiful grandchildren. Parents and grandparents throughout the country want a secure, productive future for our young, and that future will demand a college education. As a former college professor, you know the rewards of seeing students grow intellectually, exercise critical thinking, and begin to shape their communities. This transformative experience of higher learning contributes to the overall wellbeing of our nation.

The onus is now on all of us – elected officials, university presidents, business leaders, philanthropists and parents – to collaborate on effective answers. I welcome being part of this critical national conversation and I trust that together America can find solutions.

You have my best wishes for a warm holiday season.

Respectfully yours,

Mary Sue Coleman"