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If life were fair and Minnesota were still "the state that works," Robert Bruininks and James McCormick would be spending their last weeks at their respective academic helms collecting accolades.
Well-deserved ones they'd be. Both University of Minnesota President Bruininks and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) Chancellor McCormick have had long, strong runs in tough jobs.
Both will retire this summer with their institutions in remarkably good shape, given the constant funding pressure of the past decade. Instead, the state's two public higher-education CEOs are spending anxious days at the Capitol, pleading for their institutions -- and for Minnesota.
Their good performances may be garbling their message. Bruininks and McCormick (photo, right) have to beg to be believed when they say that the GOP-proposed $411 million cut in 2012-13 higher-education funding -- 14 percent less than the forecasted base -- would leave their schools reeling.
I'll throw in with them: No other state funding pattern poses greater peril to Minnesota's future than its repeated disinvestment in higher education. Keep it up, and Minnesota 25 years from now will be a different place -- poorer, sicker, meaner.
The employers who beg for "no new taxes" now will be outta here then because Minnesota will produce too few qualified workers. That prospect is why Bruininks and McCormick aren't leaving quietly. Here's some of what they said during a recent visit with the Star Tribune Editorial Board:
McCormick: We are in danger of losing this great asset that we have -- the thing that provides us with our best opportunity for prosperity. We are looking at tremendous cuts on top of cuts. The Republican budget would put us below where we were in 2003 -- and we have 37,000 more students than in 2003.
Bruininks: I'm deeply worried that we are losing our way. People believe that the vibrancy of our economy just happened. It didn't. At the center of this economy has been a broad range of access to different options in higher education. That's at risk, and that's something that's worth fighting for.
The second thing we've had is the tremendous innovation that has come from the research at the University of Minnesota. Cutting-edge innovation has had everything to do with attracting people here, spinning off companies, spinning off ideas.
McCormick: The United States used to be tops in the world in graduation rates. Now we're number 14. That's not acceptable.
Changing that means reaching students who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education -- low-income students, first-generation students, students of color. Students from those categories now represent 71 percent of the MnSCU student body. Our state's future workforce depends on us continuing to educate those students well.
Bruininks: I'd be the last to argue that higher education ought to have buckets of money thrown at it in a deep recession. We're prepared to take our tough medicine.
But with the cuts on the table now, this would be the first time in history that we will have had three huge cuts in rapid succession, with little or no time to react or adapt. That is not a sustainable path.
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"Unsustainable" is a word that's used a lot these days by analysts of higher-education trends.
Even if GOP legislators yield on their insistence on deep cuts this year, state funding looks likely to lag for the foreseeable future. The ability of institutions to make up for lost state revenue with ever-higher tuition is in doubt. That's because the capacity of average families to finance college educations appears to be diminishing. The hidden middle-class bank account of the 1990s and 2000s -- home equity -- has been drained.
Those trends suggest that while Bruininks and McCormick have kept their ships afloat, danger remains. More changes are coming, they acknowledged:
McCormick: Our number of campuses has to be considered, and will be considered. But remember, 10 years ago, we had 45 presidents. Beginning this fall we will have 30 presidents, serving more than 400,000 different Minnesotans.
We've done a lot with administrative efficiencies, back-office consolidation, partnerships and so forth. We found a way not to offer everything at every campus. You can't. But we offer very special things at each place, and students who want broader courses have to go online. We have about 85,000 students online. In some of our institutions, 25 percent of the enrollment is online. But online often isn't cheaper.
Bruininks: A certain amount of financial pressure is healthy. We're much more cost-conscious today than we were 10 years ago.
The question is, how much do we want to feed the horse and how much do we want to beat the horse? Nobody in the private sector becomes more and more productive by draining more and more of its investment. That is not a path to sustainability; it's a path to retreat.
The danger is that you become mediocre. You stop hiring the people who are necessary to keep you strong for the future. You lose the research grants that generate tens of thousands of jobs and new ideas for industry. You eat your seed corn.
McCormick: So far, our presidents have announced the elimination of 680 positions and closure of 81 programs. The additional estimated impact of the House bill would take 490 more faculty positions.
What's worse: That equates with more than 10,000 students not served. At some point, you can't take all the students who need to come. We have to say, "We're full." And that goes against the whole concept of opportunity for our citizens.
Bruininks: This trend toward higher tuition is a trend toward thinking of education as a private good. That's the way Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia have gone. They are all states that have high percentages of out-of-state students (at their flagship universities), whom they can charge more. There's less access for their own residents as a result.
We've made a commitment to preserve Minnesota access. I think it's the right thing to do. It keeps the best talent in Minnesota. If you encourage your best students to leave, you are creating a talent drain for your state.
But if the financial pressure continues on our system, I'm afraid we'll see that change here. That's the wrong path. We should do better in attracting students from other states, but do so by being a talent magnet, not as a desperate move to balance the budget.
McCormick: We need to think about how higher education can help solve problems. Health care costs are an example. We can be part of the solution, since we prepare the people who work in that industry.
We should also look at our connection with the K-12 system. We should ask: Is the 12th grade well-invested in every case? Are there ways we can do better to get high school students up to speed for college work? We're already teaching in the high schools, and high school students come to us, but we need to do more.
Bruininks: The average number of college credits freshmen now bring to the University of Minnesota from high school is 18. If those courses could better fit our requirements, that would be the equivalent of getting a $12,000 scholarship. It would improve the quality of instruction in the last two years of high school. It would help drive down costs for students. And it would materially improve the quality of instruction at our colleges, because students would be better prepared.
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Restructuring -- merging the two systems, or reallocating the state's campuses between them -- is sometimes suggested as a cost-saving measure. The higher-ed CEOs aren't keen on the idea. But they see other possibilities:
Bruininks: I don't think we'd gain very much from integrating these systems. They have low administrative overhead right now.
There may be some gain to be had in rationalizing where we've invested our higher-education resources. I have to tell you, I don't think the (higher ed) governing boards can do this very well. You'd have to have a citizens commission, akin to the way the federal government looked at closing military bases. But there isn't as much to save as people think there is.
McCormick: We've done a very detailed study on how many campuses there are in comparable states. We found ourselves to have fewer than we thought in comparison.
That said, campus closings always have to be considered. We're asking groups of campuses to see if they can find efficiencies, in southwestern Minnesota, and in the Anoka area.
Bruininks: Are there more things that we can continue to do across our systems that would leverage cost savings? I think there are. We've started a major procurement initiative that saved our system $6.5 million in the first year. Can we do that with MnSCU? Can we look at the investments we can share with the state (agencies)? I think we can, and should.
But Minnesotans should know this: We can't solve the problems of higher education by ourselves. Our problems have to do with larger problems in the state budget. We can't be strong until that's solved.
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Write those words large to Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature in the next eight days: Minnesota can't be strong until the state's budget problems are solved. And it can't be strong if that solution guts higher education.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.