Watching the federal government falter was worrisome work last week. My antidote came via a pair of state senators and one university president, who’ve got me believing that Minnesota’s government and public higher education are functioning more nearly as a constructive team than they have in years.
Theirs weren’t the kind of reports that generally makes headlines. But after more than a decade of recurring state appropriations cuts and mounting distrust between legislators and educators, the turn for the better I detected is indeed a change. And in a place still striving to live up to Gov. Rudy Perpich’s 25-year-old label — the “Brainpower State” — it’s very welcome.
Senate higher education chair Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and vice chair Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, debriefed me after their committee’s campus “listening tour.” It took them to 18 of the state’s public and private collegiate campuses in a little more than two weeks. That’s more “whirlwind” than anything legislative higher ed committees are known to have done before. (They did it on the cheap, too. The taxpayers are on the hook for gas, a few meals and only one night’s lodging. Bonoff hosted the entourage at her family’s cabin to keep costs down.)
“I grew up in retail,” explained Bonoff, whose family owned Jackson Graves clothiers. “My dad used to say to our buyers, ‘Get out into those stores and talk to customers!’ I was raised to believe that there’s nothing that beats being on the ground and listening.” What the senators wanted to hear were the voices of students, unfiltered by the sometimes self-interested faculty, administrators and lobbyists who frequent Capitol hearing rooms.
They got an earful about higher education’s Big Hurt — high student debt loads. The latest stats, from 2011, peg average student loan debt in Minnesota at $29,793, third-highest among the states. That’s the legacy of state disinvestment in higher ed and the tuition increases that followed between 2002 and 2012.
“Words cannot describe the depths of despair that too many Minnesota kids are feeling right now,” Bonoff said. “We had young people cry at the microphone. They couldn’t help themselves. This is a travesty that we are putting on this generation.” It’s a travesty marked with bipartisan legislative fingerprints.
The 2013 Legislature took a different tack. It raised taxes enough to send higher ed $250 million in new money over the next two years. It then attached several performance strings to those funds, the largest being a tuition freeze. The Legislature has the authority to require as much at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. For the constitutionally autonomous University of Minnesota, the Legislature had to settle for a handshake deal with the Board of Regents, which has the final word on tuition.
The deal is holding — so much so that I wonder whether legislators will start thinking they can block tuition increases indefinitely at the University of Minnesota. They shouldn’t.
But university President Eric Kaler — my other higher ed visitor last week — likes the legislative favor he bought with his offer to freeze tuition if the Legislature provided a $42 million funding increase over two years. He called it “the first step in a positive journey with our elected officials.”
The next step on the journey Kaler envisions is a hefty bonding bill, anchored by $233 million in taxpayer financing for University of Minnesota building projects. The project wish list is studded with science facilities, which legislators see as economy-stimulators, and extends to campuses in Crookston, Duluth and St. Paul, as well as Minneapolis.
Bonoff and Clausen are quite open to big higher-ed facilities requests. But they came away from their tour convinced that the 2014 Legislature should do more about student costs and debt. It’s not a budget-setting session, so their policy options are limited. But they like these ideas:
• Inviting employers to establish apprenticeship ties with students early — often while they are still in high school — and offer apprentices employer-specific instruction, both on and off campus, in exchange for tuition subsidies.
• Offering at least partial student loan debt forgiveness in exchange for public service work after graduation.
• Hastening student progress toward graduation — and reducing their costs — by requiring MnSCU to remove persistent roadblocks to the transfer of credits from one state college or university to another.
• Stepping up efforts to blur the academic distinctions between high school and college. Minnesota’s been trying to do that since Perpich’s Brainpower State days. The Post-Secondary Enrollment Option for high school students that Perpich started can be more widely used to cut college costs.
Ideas like these are a tonic for an editorial writer who’s written too often about lawmakers inflicting distress on students, schools and, by extension, Minnesota’s future. Serious, creative efforts to do the opposite deserve a cheer.
But there’s that federal government shutdown. There’s the threat that the U.S. government would do the unthinkable and fail to honor its debt obligations. There’s the prospect of an economic recovery that was just taking hold in Minnesota slipping away again — for reasons entirely within the control of people entrusted by voters to be stewards of the nation’s shared assets. There’s the risk that a new recession will undo the good that Minnesota education leaders are finally preparing to do.
That’s more than worrisome. It’s maddening.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.