MnSCU budget request - going down

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • November 18, 2008 - 11:26 PM

Back in September, it seemed a reasonable request: a 9.3 percent increase in state money to cover salaries, add research centers and expand buildings in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Two months and an economic crisis later, the system's Board of Trustees is poised to knock that percentage down.

"I don't think we have a prayer of carrying this budget successfully," said trustee James Van Houten. "And I think to the extent that we look unrealistic, we'll even be less influential when the actual negotiations take place."

At its meeting today, the board in charge of MnSCU -- which counts on the state for about half its revenue -- will revise its budget request. The September request would have asked the state to add $126.7 million over two years to the $1.4 billion it currently gives the system.

"You can argue the politics, but I'd rather go up and say, 'You know what? We've taken a close look at our stuff. Pick a number. Keep us even. And we'll work,'" said David Olson, MnSCU's board chair. "Other groups are going to go up there and say, 'We'd like 9 percent or 10 percent.' I think people are going to look at them and say, 'you're crazy.'"

The original request had assumed a battle for funds and required the system to make $20 million in cuts to equipment, student services and staff to cover expenses and growing enrollment. "There's already been a lot of pruning," said trustee Clarence Hightower.

But it also requested funding for centers focused on bio-sciences and the agriculture industry; money to attract and keep faculty; and expanding the capacity of Metropolitan State University, among other new programs.

It also requested $23.9 million in tuition assistance, including $18.6 million for new grants to part-time students -- an idea which, judging from Tuesday's committee meeting, will be the first cut.

The request assumed tuition bumps averaging 4 percent for the system's seven universities and 3 percent for its two-year colleges for a total of $68 million in revenue over two years. Each percentage increase in tuition yields $6.5 million a year, said Laura King, MNSCU's vice chancellor and chief financial officer.

The system's chancellor, James McCormick, warned against setting tuition increases as part of that request.

"There's too much uncertainty," he said. If students hear it will be a particular percentage, "they get locked into that and then it looks like we didn't stick to what we said we were going to do."

The student association for the universities in the system has its own proposal: Ask the state to provide all funding for inflation: $133 million, without assuming a tuition increase.

"If adequate funding is not received, discussions regarding how to balance campus budgets, which may include reallocation, cuts and tuition increases can then be made," Christopher Frederick, state chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association wrote in a letter to the board.

Trustee David Paskach supported that idea, "recognizing that next year and the year after could be some of the worst times to ask the students to pay more," he said.

"This may not be a time to raise tuition either."

In October, the University of Minnesota finalized its budget request that included a $141 million increase over two years to the nearly $1.5 billion the state currently gives. It also called for raising tuition by 9 percent and faculty and staff pay by 6 percent over the same period. At the time, President Robert Bruininks acknowledged it could be a tough sell.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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