The trend of piling more higher-ed costs on students should end
University tuition increases of a seemingly modest $254 per year were nevertheless high enough to send thousands of angry student protesters into the streets, leading to more than 700 arrests last week -- in Montreal.
It hasn't come to that on Minnesota's side of the border. But unusually sharp unhappiness has been registered locally this spring over proposed tuition increases of a similar scale at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).
Those student laments are the latest signals of the need for change in the pattern of paying for public higher education. For at least two decades, an ever-larger share of college costs has shifted from taxpayers to students, their families and their futures.
That shift is taking an increasingly damaging social, economic and political toll. Those most directly affected are calling on the rest of us to pay heed.
Compared with some years in the past decade, the proposed increases at the state's two public systems don't seem unduly steep -- unless you're an already overworked college student racking up debt. On average, Minnesota students graduate with $29,000 in college-related debts.
The MnSCU proposal for 2012-13 calls for an average increase of $187 for two-year college students, bringing the annual tuition bill to $5,355, and $320 for four-year university students, for a total annual price of $7,346.
At the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, resident undergraduate tuition is proposed to jump $410 in 2012-13, to $12,060.
It's a credit to the two systems that the proposed hikes are as low as they are, given the latest state funding blow to their bottom lines. State support in the coming academic year will be more than 21 percent less than it was in 2008-09.
A cut that deep would be bad enough if it were a one-time response to the Great Recession. It's not.
It's the latest and sharpest of a long series of squeeze plays by state government. In 1971, the University of Minnesota received 8.2 percent of state spending. In 2013, it will be 3.3 percent.
Other financially stressed states have made similar choices in the past decade. But the funding retreat in Minnesota has been among the nation's most precipitous (see graph, below).
In the long run, this trend puts at risk Minnesota's best economic asset: Its well-educated workforce. In the short run, it's slowing recovery from the recession.
Debt-saddled young adults are slower to purchase houses and cars and start families. They are less likely to opt for lower-income careers in public service or teaching.
To their credit, the two public systems have responded to state cuts by becoming more efficient. The total cost to educate a MnSCU student in constant dollars is 10 percent less today than it was in 2000; the University of Minnesota boasts of a 12 percent decline in per-student costs since 1998.
The University Board of Regents' recent move to rein in executive leave and severance practices is the latest example -- and a commendable one -- of coming to terms with new economic realities.
But it's not enough. That's the implicit message that higher-education governing boards should be hearing from unhappy students as they prepare to vote on tuition increases next month.
As University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler told us recently, there is "a great opportunity to do more" in concert with MnSCU to put programs where they are most needed, share resources where possible and eliminate needless duplication.
MnSCU has embarked on a series of conversations with employers around the state, aiming to better align training programs with employment demand.
Both of these are promising ideas. But they, too, won't be enough to provide Minnesota with the higher education it needs -- not if the state cuts keep coming at their recent clip.
More state budget woes lie ahead. The 2013 Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton will again be asked to close a gap forecasted at more than $1 billion.
Those who are raising their voices now to protest higher tuition should save some of their ire for the campaign season and for lobbying the 2013 Legislature. State politicians ought to hear from their constituents that the cost shift from taxpayers to tuition payers needs to stop.
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