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Gubernatorial candidates wrestle with higher education funding
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
October 29, 2002

Among the challenges facing Minnesota's next governor will be how to keep higher education affordable at a time the state faces large deficits. While Minnesota's four major party gubernatorial candidates all agree on that goal, they differ in how they'd achieve it. And all four say the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems won't be immune to possible budget cuts.

Northrup Hall
Northrup Hall on the U of M, Twin Cities campus.
(Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota)

These are not flush times for public higher education anywhere, a point University of Minnesota Interim President Robert Bruininks acknowledged during his recent "State of the U" speech.

"We know that funding for higher education has declined substantially as a proportion of state budgets, and as a percentage of personal income across the country this past quarter century," Bruininks said. "Minnesota clearly has not been immune from this national trend. This has led many public university presidents to comment that, 'We used to be state supported, then we became state assisted, and now we are state-located.'"

It's not as bad as all that for the U of M or for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.

The state provides the university and MnSCU with more than $600 million apiece each year. That's nearly one-half of MnSCU's $1.4 billion budget, and about one-third of the University of Minnesota's nearly $2 billion annual budget.

James McCormick
MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick is asking for lower than usual budget increases from the Legislature because of the looming deficit. He says the move will expand higher education's credibility with lawmakers. "This is a very difficult fiscal situation, and we needed to have a budget that was conservative and one that was really bare bones in terms of what we could get along with and still do our job," McCormick says.
(Photo courtesy of MnSCU)

The state deficit last session prompted lawmakers to take a bite out of the higher ed appropriation. The U of M budget was slashed by nearly $24 million. MnSCU suffered a $23 million cut. Those cuts contributed to double-digit tuition increases for students.

In a recent gubernatorial debate, Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty said he's concerned that even though higher education saw a net increase in the latest two-year budget, it still triggered a funding and tuition crisis.

"A 7 to 8 percent increase in funding should not have that kind of consequences. Now, granted, that's not a record-setting increase, but it's better than inflation. So we have to start looking at these institutions and asking, what is it about our colleges and universities where their costs are going up 10, 12, 15 percent a year."

For the past several months, Pawlenty sat on a legislatively-appointed blue ribbon panel called the Commission on University of Minnesota Excellence. The commission recently released its recommendations, one of which is that excellence at the U of M will, "require extraordinary financial support from the state."

Pawlenty downplays the commission's call for increased funding. He says the state cannot afford to keep up with what the U of M and MnSCU say they need.

He says while some of the cost includes rising health care premiums and the race to hire and retain good faculty, he'd like to see more efficiencies in both systems to make sure there isn't too much instructional overlap between them.

Leaders at the U of M and MnSCU admit there could be some overlap, but they're working together to change that. And they say they're sensitive to the state's financial hardships.

Both institutions are asking for lower than usual budget increases for the 2004-2005 biennium. They both cite the looming deficit as the reason for the lower requests.

Robert Bruininks
U of M Interim President Robert Bruininks says the budget difficulties at the school will not be borne on the backs of students. He is promising not to exceed a 4.5 percent yearly tuition increase over the next biennium.
(Photo courtesy of the U of M)

MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick says the move will expand higher education's credibility with lawmakers.

"This is a very difficult fiscal situation and we needed to have a budget that was conservative and one that was really bare bones in terms of what we could get along with and still do our job."

Both MnSCU and the University of Minnesota say students will not have to bear the burden of filling in the budget gap.

The university is promising not to exceed a 4.5 percent yearly tuition increase over the next biennium. Similarly, MnSCU is promising to not increase tuition more than 3 percent each year.

While the lower biennial request could be a good move politically, the projected $3 billion deficit means higher education still has no guarantee of getting everything it asks for.

Independence Party candidate Tim Penny is an adjunct professor at Winona State University and is co-director of the Humphrey Policy Forum at the University of Minnesota. He says those affiliations, and having a son who attends the U, bring insight into the challenges faced by the two systems.

Still, Penny says there may be no real way to increase higher education spending while deficits dominate the budget debate at the state Capitol.

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
The Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet is one of the MnSCU schools. The systems has campuses in 46 communities around the state.
(Photo courtesy of MnSCU)

"I've watched both of the major systems in Minnesota respond to this budget challenge. They're coming forward with much more modest requests than they have in the past," Penny says. "But by the same token, we can't guarantee in the near term that we're not going to see additional tuition increases. So how do you backfill that? You backfill that with adequate financial aid for full time and part time students. So that no student with financial need is denied access to higher education in Minnesota."

Penny's call for financial aid is shared by the other three major party candidates, Pawlenty, Roger Moe, and Ken Pentel.

The Green Party's Pentel says he'd push for free college educations for everyone who wants one. Pentel hasn't spelled out exactly how he'd make that happen, and says he realizes economic realities make his proposal unlikely anytime soon.

He says for the short term, he would support a program that allows graduates to pay off their school debt by working for the state, or at least in the state.

"We need to talk about reciprocal relationships, ending the debt load students are carrying in the state of Minnesota," Pentel says. "That means, you work two years in the state, you get debt relief. You help fill gaps in society, we need nurses in rural areas. We need doctors, we need school teachers. Relieve debt to fill gaps, needed gaps in society. But ultimately, I think, we're the richest nation in human history, to make students make decisions on their careers based on the debt they're carrying is unacceptable."

DFL candidate Roger Moe has focused on higher education as the pathway to economic prosperity.

At a recent debate, Moe spoke of the state's need for trained workers. He says well-educated citizens are good for the economy. He says it's the state's responsibility to ensure that the opportunity to go to college is within reach for all Minnesotans.

"Making sure that we continue to be affordable and accessible -- that's critical. Making sure that we have our post-secondary education linkages with workforce centers and higher education is essential," says Moe. "As we try and have a trained workforce, so that everybody can enjoy a high standard of living, a high quality of life in this state, which is my priority."

Moe has consistently promoted strong funding for higher education during his 32 years in the state Legislature.

Student organizations from both the U of M and MnSCU say they're determined to lobby the new governor and new members of the Legislature to make sure they don't forget the students. Since everyone seems to agree on the need for keeping higher education accessible and affordable, student groups hope to hold candidates to their word.

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