The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 17, 2012

Our View: Higher ed funding needs to be reworked

The Free Press

— Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) is planning to present a $1.2 billion budget — a 9 percent increase over the current biennium — to the Legislature but it also offered a deal.

MnSCU said it will boost enrollment, cut administration by $44 million and cap tuition increases at 3 percent. It also said it will get funds elsewhere — including the K-12 community — to match state funding.

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said: “Here’s what the investment by the people of Minnesota will deliver for Minnesota. And here’s how we’re going to leverage that investment with some work on our own part.”

While that approach is admirable, the success of finding others to match state funding isn’t really the report card taxpayers need.

The logical questions are: If you are cutting $44 million out of operations, why do you need an additional $97 million over the next two years? Why does MnSCU need a 3 percent tuition increase when the University of Minnesota has promised to freeze tuition? Taxpayers should be getting a clearer picture of just where university funding is going and why.

Without a doubt, the cost of a college education is getting out of hand. Student debt has reached a record $1 trillion. The Economist magazine recently reported the average cost of college per student has risen by three times the rate of inflation since 1983. That’s faster than rising health care costs.

The cost of tuition alone has soared from 23 percent of median annual earnings in 2001 to 38 percent in 2010. This leaves the opportunity for a degree further out of the reach of students who either can’t afford it or have to take out exorbitant loan packages on the hope a job will exist at the end of schooling.

We recently reported that two of MnSCU’s campuses — including Mankato — have the highest student debt load in the state and are among the highest in the nation, even with tuition substantially lower than the U of M.

President Obama earlier this year said it is time to tie federal aid to universities, such as Pell Grants, to a school’s ability to keep its costs down. It’s time the Legislature took a similar hard look at its university systems and ask “why?”

Why are there two systems with duplicative administration? Why are colleges replicating course offerings rather than specializing by campus? New Jersey is merging its medical college into Rutgers University, and there are four sets of mergers in Georgia alone. One will combine Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities, and will strip administrative costs and overheads. Campuses are often cities within cities with their own police, fire and transportation systems. Are there opportunities for joint operations with municipalities?

Most recently, a governor’s commission in Pennsylvania issued a broad set of recommendations to make post-secondary study more accessible. It included tying increases in state funding to success in meeting those goals and in considering consolidation of institutions and programs. The commission was comprised of leaders in business and higher education.

MnSCU has said it wants to focus on preparing students for “high-demand, high-growth professions” and held listening sessions with businesses throughout the state to learn more about that need. What is the measurement in place that shows MnSCU is addressing this need?

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece, the author suggested universities need to look at specific areas such as administrative salaries and student-life services that exist solely to help students — well, be students. And then there’s the physical plant of the universities themselves which are constantly being upgraded, landscaped or added upon, which does little toward advancing education.

This recession has taught a number of people and businesses how to do more with less. The Legislature should follow the lead of other states and examine ways public universities can perform better without increasing cost of operation and taxpayer funding.

At the very least, following the Pennsylvania model of tying increases to meeting goals should be explored. With so many looming costs facing the state — with rising health care costs tied to an aging population and the immediate need of funding K-12 education better — Minnesota needs to ask all of its institutions to turn that research inward and find a better way.