Today’s quiz is about state higher education funding. Which state’s governments, state plus local, spent the least per student at their public two-year community and technical colleges in 2013-14: North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin or Minnesota?
If you guessed Minnesota, you’re right — and even if you’re not surprised at this state’s cellar spot in these standings, you ought to be embarrassed by the numbers. Wisconsin’s per-student spending led the region at $12,432; North Dakotans and Nebraskans both invested nearly $7,800; Kansas was at $6,700; Iowa, $5,590.
And Minnesota? $3,876.
The story is much the same at state universities and the University of Minnesota. The state that the late Gov. Rudy Perpich branded “The Brainpower State” ranked consistently among the top 10 in per capita taxpayer support for all of higher education for three decades, from the mid-1970s until 2003. Since then, Minnesota has fallen to as low as 25th among the 50 states in 2012-13. Though higher ed spending by state government rebounded a bit in the past three years, it hasn’t come close to keeping up with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. If state appropriations had grown with inflation since 2002, this year’s allotment to the University of Minnesota would be 35 percent larger; to Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, 21 percent larger.
State Sen. Richard Cohen, a St. Paul DFLer and the former chair of the Senate Finance Committee, noted recently that every other major spending category in state government has in large measure recovered from the fiscal constraint of the Great Recession. Higher education has not — and will not under the bills that have been sent to conference committee by the House and Senate.
Of the two, the Senate’s bid is the more tightfisted. Its $100 million increase amounts to about 3 percent over two years. The House does better with a $150 million increase. Both bills offer well below the $318 million increase Gov. Mark Dayton recommended and the $325 million requested by the state’s two higher education systems — sums they said would be sufficient to allow for a tuition freeze while maintaining the quality of existing academic programs.
Predictably, the Legislature wants the tuition freeze at a lower price. Constitutional autonomy shields the University of Minnesota from legislative mandates about tuition — and if the skimpy increases these bills have on offer for the U are signed into law, its students can count on their tuition bills going up. But Minnesota State — a system in wobbly financial condition — has no such protection from political meddling in governance. Both of the Legislature’s higher ed bills contain some version of a tuition freeze for Minnesota State’s 37 colleges and universities.
We hope those freeze provisions melt away in conference committee. Minnesota State’s governing board needs all the tools at its disposal to keep the system solvent and maintain the quality of its programs.
More than that, we hope legislators hear and heed the many Minnesotans who are worried about the trajectory this state has set for higher education in the 21st century. Public investments in education have a proven payoff, but those returns take time to materialize. The downside of underfunding is not quickly seen. That puts higher education at a disadvantage when it competes at the Legislature with proposals for immediate tax relief.
As legislators set the state’s 2018-19 budget in the next several weeks, they should be reminded that their purpose in elective office is not to secure an advantage in the next election, but to set the economic table for the next generation.