The Oct. 12 editorial, “Be wary of promises to freeze tuition,” stated that “the DFL-controlled 2013 Legislature vowed to reverse that [funding cut] trend when it added $230 million to higher education appropriations for the ensuing two years.” The editorial failed to mention that the Legislature also ordered Minnesota State to freeze tuition (and asked the constitutionally autonomous Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota to do the same) and that the freeze was paid for with new recurring funding to the base budget.
Now, a Minnesota State Workgroup on Long-Term Financial Sustainability reports that “the new state funds have mostly offset the lost tuition resulting from the tuition freeze and have not been a source of new operating revenue. The overall size of the funding pie has not increased; rather, the sizes of the tuition and appropriation slices have merely shifted.”
To be clear, the 2013-14 tuition freeze was paid for with additional state funding for higher education, and the new funds were adjusted to the higher education base funding into the future. The size of the funding pie was increased.
The 2013 Legislature provided the funding increase (as requested by the university systems) so students would not bear the brunt with increased tuition. For Minnesota’s higher-education systems not to recognize that increase, and, worse, to complain that it was actually a cut in funding, reveals the incredible arrogance and isolation of these administratively driven systems from the reality of its basic purpose, which is to serve the public.
Other ignored facts were the record cuts to Minnesota’s systems of higher education during the Great Recession and that the systems responded by instituting record increases in tuition. Not once during the Legislature’s historic cuts did the higher-education systems state any concern that the record increases in tuition would cause any harm in the short- or long-term. The record debt that resulted from those tuition increases now ranks with the bank failures, Wall Street crash, real estate foreclosures and automotive industry failures for negatively affecting the nation’s economy and its full recovery from the Great Recession.
The highest-paid public employees in Minnesota are higher-education administrators. Earning hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, these public employees were given bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars while raising student tuition to pay for it. Incidentally, the 2013-14 DFL-controlled Legislature also passed into law a ban on future bonuses for the Minnesota State administrators.
The term “tuition freeze,” as used by the Star Tribune, describes the Wisconsin version of freezing tuition — where the state froze tuition and invested nothing in its higher-education systems. Wisconsin also stripped its higher-education system of its reserves, adding further harm. In contrast, in 2013-14 Minnesota invested in its higher-education systems to stop tuition increases.
What Minnesotans need to be wary of are its higher-education system boards, the Minnesota State Trustees and the University of Minnesota Regents. They are blind to the issue of massive student debt, and select administrators who are loyal only to the leadership that hired them, not to the universities and colleges they are so handsomely paid to run.
Public service has not been an issue in this discussion unless you go back to the 2013 DFL-controlled Legislature. The 14 hearings the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee held on the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State systems were the first in more than a decade that thoroughly analyzed each system’s budget. When the committee challenged administrators on their salary increases and bonuses at a time of record cuts, record tuition increases and record student debt, their only response was they had to be competitive in the marketplace of administrators.
Additionally, the Minnesota State Board of Trustees recently wasted $600,000 to “re-brand” the system name from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) to Minnesota State.
Minnesotans should always be wary of how the Legislature spends taxpayer dollars. The Legislature must perform detailed examinations — account by account — of all budgets. Elected representatives must be responsible for how state resources are invested and not politically appointed or motivated boards that now only do the bidding of the administrators they select to run Minnesota’s colleges and universities.
Gene Pelowski Jr., DFL-Winona, is a member of the Minnesota House and DFL-lead on the Committee on Higher Education.