High hopes for higher education fundingby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
The two state-supported higher education systems are hoping to take advantage of a rosier financial outlook to boost budget appropriations from the coming legislative session. Both the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system aim to boost the share the state pays. But students and faculty say the effort still does not heal the scars from past cuts.
St. Paul, Minn. — The fall before the legislative budget session is a time when public higher education institution administrators are squeezed.
On one side are students. They're looking for some relief from tuition that is two-thirds again higher than what they were paying in 2000.
On the other side are legislators who see at least part of the nearly $3-billion appropriation for higher education as a potential relief valve for rising taxes and other important state priorities.
College officials, like MnSCU Vice Chancellor Laura King are hopeful an improving state economy will push the balance back toward students.
"Part of our hope is in this legislative session, to try to reaffirm the state's commitment," King said. "It used to be the state supported two-thirds and the students supported one-third. We've slipped from that 67 (percent) down to now 50 (percent). We're hoping to, in part, further that conversation in this upcoming session."
The state's proportion of funding for MnSCU compared to student tuition has fallen steadily from 1999 when it was 70 percent. MnSCU Trustees are still deciding whether to approach the legislature with a $177-million request in January.
Even if the Legislature fills the entire request--which it traditionally hasn't-- it would push the state's proportion to about 53 percent. Tuition would rise 4 percent each year. The U of M has a similar request of around $180 million. Tuition there would go up about 4.5 percent.
"It is some balance between doing what's right and what's possible," said Dan McElroy, an advisor to Gov. Pawlenty and former state finance commissioner.
McElroy is also the newest member of the MnSCU Board of Trustees. This week he grilled MnSCU staffers on whether spending increases proposed to expand access for low income students and to boost technology infrastructure are realistic. McElroy was the architect of the state's deficit recovery plan in 2003 that sliced nearly $190-million from MnSCU's two-year budget. He noted enrollment continued to rise even with the resulting tuition increase.
"That doesn't mean that isn't hard on students and their families and I fully understand that and worry about that," McElroy said. "That's one of the reasons we put so much more money in the state financial aid package. But our competitors had to make the same changes we did."
McElroy and others say the economy now is clearly improving and that should benefit MnSCU and the U of M.
Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls), chair of the House Higher Education Finance Committee, expects students will see some relief.
"With the current financial situation the state is in, it's much more optimistic we can do more," Nornes said. "The goal is to help the students as much as we can and hold down the cost of tuition. That's the main goal."
MnSCU's legislative request is less than the nearly $200-million in new spending it sought in the last biennium.
Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), Chair of the Senate Higher Education Financing Committee, now sees a need to tie new funding to a new set of goals.
"Maybe graduation rates could be one of our goals," Pappas said. "Also, we need to do a educating a lot more of what we call first generation students. Students who are low income, minorities, who are immigrants, students whose parents didn't go to college, they don't have a family tradition of college. These are the students we need to be reach out to."
MnSCU officials clearly heard those suggestions and have developed a map to show how they'll spend the money they're asking for.
All of these efforts do little, however, to appease faculty and students. One student leader told Trustees he feels abandoned by the MnSCU administration that advocates for another tuition hike. Student and faculty representatives both say MnSCU should push for nearly $75-million more next year to keep tuition flat.
Russ Stanton, director of government relations for the Inter Faculty Organization complains faculty salaries have not kept up with inflation and there are more students to teach.
"If you don't recognize inflation and enrollment growth, you're diluting your resources, you're eroding your resources," Stanton said. "Students just don't get as good an education. You do not get as good a faculty and quality deteriorates. We're not willing to sit and watch that happen again."
Both MnSCU and the University of Minnesota are expected to finalize their legislative budget plans before the end of November, and before the state releases it's budget forecast for the legislative session.
- All Things Considered, 10/20/2006, 5:35 p.m.