It takes considerable gall for the Minnesota Legislature to deal the state’s two higher-education systems nation-leading cuts in state aid — a nearly 50 percent reduction over the last decade — and then complain about the decisions of the systems’ governing boards to raise tuition.
But Capitol sentiment runs deep this year that tuition increases have gone too far at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and that restoring a portion of previous cuts isn’t sufficient to rein in tuition.
Many legislators want to essentially take over for the governing boards in setting tuition — or at least in freezing it, as the House attempts to do in its omnibus higher-ed bill, or capping it at a 3 percent increase, as a floor amendment to the Senate’s bill does for MnSCU.
(The Senate amendment tacitly acknowledges that the Legislature has limited ability to tread on the Board of Regents’ constitutionally protected turf. But the House seeks to coerce the regents to do the Legislature’s bidding by directing state officials to refuse to release funds to the university if a tuition freeze is not adopted.)
These moves are ill-advised. The Legislature is proposing to rob governing boards of their ability to balance tuition costs and academic quality, not just in the next two years but likely for years to come. Legislators instead should be asking those boards to do a better job.
Lawmakers’ concern about higher-education costs is understandable. The rapid rise in college costs during the last decade is not sustainable. The capacity of students and their families to pay ever-increasing sums for higher education has been exhausted. Already an entire generation has been overburdened with debt, and too many financially hard-pressed students are opting to end their studies well short of their full potential. The business model that has sustained higher education for the last quarter-century appears to have reached a breaking point.
Since 2011, both the University of Minnesota and MnSCU have slowed their tuition hikes and stepped up internal reallocation in recognition of a changing situation. With the regents’ blessing — and without the Legislature’s nudge — U President Eric Kaler this year pledged that if the Legislature provides an additional $42.5 million for operations in the next two years, he won’t recommend a tuition increase during that period. Both higher-ed bills at the Capitol more than meet that request.
Yet sustaining higher ed’s quality is as important as its affordability to Minnesota’s 21st-century aspirations. Regents and trustees, in Minnesota and elsewhere, are obliged to make sure public higher education is a good value proposition. Evidence has mounted that they can do more to increase faculty productivity, streamline administration, rein in bloated salaries, reduce less-than-essential activities and target institutional financial aid where it’s most needed.
But the reality is that they hire faculty in a national market, not a local one. If all MnSCU and the university can afford is mediocre talent, the state will suffer.
Substituting legislators’ judgments about tuition for that of governing boards won’t help higher education strike a healthy balance between quality and affordability. It would only inject a big dose of populism and partisan politics into already complex equations.
The state Constitution established an autonomous Board of Regents, and the Legislature followed suit with a gubernatorially appointed MnSCU Board of Trustees, precisely to keep politics at some distance from higher-education governance. They knew that people who frequently stand for election aren’t best-positioned to govern higher education with an eye to the state’s long-term interests.
If legislators discover this year that they can block unpopular tuition increases, they will have tasted a highly addictive potion. What future legislator would muster the political will to allow tuition to rise again? And what would happen to quality if tuition is frozen for multiple years, as House higher-ed chair Gene Pelowski says he intends — especially if state politicians again cut support for operations?
One likely result is the opposite of what freeze-favoring legislators intend, former university president James C. Garland posits in his 2009 book, “Saving Alma Mater.” (See adjacent excerpt.) Tuition controls take governing boards off the hook. Competitive pressure to deliver a better product at a lower price is eased when an external force dictates prices. If the tuition freeze is sustained through many years, quality will suffer.
“The evidence [will be] rundown buildings, classes taught by part-time teachers, a growing bureaucracy, and a defensive and change-resistant campus culture,” Garland wrote.
What legislators should seek instead are campus cultures that are open to value-enhancing change. The Senate’s omnibus higher-education bill is on the right track in making 5 percent of the state’s 2014-15 appropriations to the two systems contingent on meeting at least three of five performance goals. Inviting individual campuses to compete for funds ought to be considered.
The Legislature should be clear about what it wants to buy with the tax dollars it sends the two systems. The purpose of that funding should be to bring Minnesota the benefits of both a better-trained workforce and more job-generating research. The Legislature should let the governing boards decide how to deliver those benefits, and at what price, and then hold those boards accountable for the results.