Seeing a familiar plan and fewer options

  • Updated: January 28, 2009 - 10:37 AM

Some education officials are suffering from flashbacks.

Under the governor's budget proposal, the University of Minnesota faces a $153 million reduction in state funding over two years, while the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system would get $145 million less. Both represent cuts of more than 10.7 percent from current law.

"My first thought was, 'There we go again,'" said Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, comparing the proposed reductions to those in 2003-04. "It was at that point the systems squeezed all the fat that they could."

Back then, the U froze pay, cut programs, restructured health-care coverage and raised tuition, among other things. This time, cuts will be more difficult, said U President Robert Bruininks: "Once you go through deep reductions and you prune the tree, there are fewer branches to prune the next time around."

At a recent legislative hearing, MnSCU's chief financial officer, Laura King, said deep decreases in the system's budget could necessitate higher tuition, caps on enrollment and possibly closing one or more of MnSCU's 54 campuses.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not specify where the systems might cut: "Rather than micromanaging them -- here's what we think you should do -- we're going to give them this goal." But he did recommend that the institutions cap tuition -- an idea they don't support. Some legislators do.

Bruininks said the U is committed to keeping tuition down and financial aid high, but "it's always bad to ask people to assume very difficult responsibilities and then micromanage how they do them."

About 21 percent of the U's budgeted revenues for 2009 come from tuition and fees; 24 percent come from the state.

The governor's budget leaves intact the State Grant program, which provided  $150 million in aid to 83,000 students in 2007-08. But it proposes cuts to a new program, Achieve Scholarship.

JENNA ROSS

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