One of the most contentious issues of this legislative session was the debate over how much to spend for public colleges and universities. Gov. Ventura said the state couldn't afford to give everyone all the money they wanted. Some lawmakers say the governor made a big mistake and is shortchanging the state's economic development engine.
DURING HIS BUDGET ADDRESS in January, Gov. Ventura proposed about $99 million in new spending for higher education. "I am recommending a 4.5-percent increase in funding that I believe will allow higher education institutions to continue existing programs responsibly," Ventura said.
An avalanche of criticism followed from higher education officials, including University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof, who saw the increase as an insult, given the much more ambitious increases they had sought. "We will fight against this budget as actively as possible. I'm not whining, because we took one small step forward and it wasn't large enough. I'm whining because we took one giant step backwards," Yudof said.
Massive lobbying followed, with alumni, administrators, students and the public calling, mailing, and e-mailing lawmakers, pleading for more money.
Lawmakers proposed more spending for higher education than the governor, but there were big differences between the House and Senate. A legislative working group finally struck a compromise that gave about $111 million more dollars to the U and about $100 million more for the Minnesota State Colleges and University System.
Both systems plan to raise tuition by double digits to help make up what they won't get from the state. The university plans to raise tuition and fees by about 13-percent; MnSCU to raise tuition by about 10-percent.
Outgoing MnSCU Chancellor Morrie Anderson tried to soften the blow. "Our tuitions have always been very reasonable and even with a 10-percent increase, I think we still fall well within the lines of reasonableness when we look at other institutions, both in the state and around the country," Anderson said.
But Senate Higher Education Finance Division Chair Deanna Wiener says she's concerned about students bearing more of the cost of their education.
"With this bill, I know quality is not going to decline. That's a commitment from the chancellor and the president of the university. We'll still have the availability, but the affordability is now in question and when you have a double-digit increase in tuition, that part does concern me," Weiner said.
The debate over funding led to a larger discussion about whether public colleges and universities should redefine their missions at a time when state subsidies consistently fail to keep pace with their growth. Higher education officials are also asking whether depending increasingly on alternative sources of money will alter their identity.
"What this does is really establish a principle in which we're going to go down a long, slippery slope," predicts University of Minnesota Regent Bob Berglund. "Financing this place will shift from public to private. The implications of this are really something that's got to be considered seriously."
Still, state taxpayers will subsidize higher education considerably in the next two years. The higher education bill spends about $2.9 billion dollars.