Tom Rukavina: Cutting higher education (again) only fuels a vicious cycle

  • Article by: TOM RUKAVINA
  • Updated: March 20, 2008 - 6:22 PM

On the other hand, support for education leads to a strong workforce and healthy economy.

To resolve the state's budget deficit, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed a series of deep cuts, including more than $50 million from our state universities and colleges. The direct result would be either substantial tuition increases or significant reductions in student services, making our schools less attractive for prospective students.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is exactly what happened last time the governor dealt with a budget deficit. The University of Minnesota and MnSCU were the largest funding casualties when the governor made deep cuts in 2003 to our schools, local governments, nursing homes and higher-education institutions.

The nearly $380 million in cuts to the U and to MnSCU triggered five years of steep, double-digit tuition increases. As a result, according to a study just released by the governor's own Office of Higher Education, tuition in Minnesota is now double the national average. In addition, Minnesota has become a Big Ten leader in student debt, with the average graduate leaving school $21,000 in the hole. Last year, we successfully put an end to double-digit tuition increases by nearly filling the funding gap left by the cuts in 2003, but the governor's new proposed cuts would derail this progress.

We face a budget deficit again this year due in part to the economic damage left by Pawlenty's actions when we had a deficit in 2003. By disinvesting in our schools and higher-education institutions, we disinvested in jobs and weakened our economy. Last year, Minnesota lagged behind the national average on unemployment for the first time in recorded history, and in 2006 we fell to 46th nationally in personal-income growth. State economist Tom Stinson has said that a lack of jobs significantly contributed to our current budget situation.

Every reputable economist, conservative or liberal, agrees that economic development is intrinsically linked to a quality workforce. This is exactly why higher education is critical to long-term economic competitiveness. It is no coincidence that until recently, Minnesota has been a national leader in both college graduation rates and key economic indicators like personal income and employment. But as our higher-education investment started to slip, so did our economic competitive edge.

Our long-term economic success hinges on the competence of our workforce, and the competence of our workforce hinges on the quality of our universities and colleges. Right now, more than 32,000 students graduate from Minnesota public universities and colleges each year, and more than 80 percent stay in Minnesota, fueling the pipeline of a healthy Minnesota economy.

Recommitment to higher education will lead to a healthy, prosperous economy. If the governor cuts higher education again, he will compound our economic troubles by repeating the mistakes that stunted job growth and led us back to a budget deficit.

Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, is chairman of the Higher Education and Work Force Development Committee in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

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