The University of Minnesota is asking lawmakers for a state funding hike — a boost that would help limit an undergraduate tuition increase on the Twin Cities campus to about 2 percent.
President Eric Kaler made a pitch for more state dollars at the Capitol on Wednesday, his final request to lawmakers before he steps down in July. The U is asking for an additional $87 million, or an almost 7 percent increase over the biennium.
The U faces intense competition for state dollars this session, with DFL leaders who control the state House and governor’s office listing K-12 education and health care as top priorities. It is making a more modest request than those it pursued with mixed results in recent years. It’s also ditching an approach of tying its request to a pledge to freeze tuition, which worked in 2015 but was not successful the last time the U lobbied the state for more money.
“Our legislative request is restrained and reasonable, and most importantly it’s forward-looking,” Kaler said during a news conference.
Higher education leaders in the state House and Senate were measured in their response to the U’s request in the first week of the session. But they signaled they are inclined to support the university — if it makes a strong, detailed case for the extra dollars.
The U now receives $673 million a year from the state, or about 17 percent of its $3.8 billion budget.
U officials say the additional funding would go toward employee pay raises, upgrades to classrooms and research equipment and compliance with state and federal regulations. They have noted that even as lawmakers have contributed more in recent years amid a strong economy, state funding still lags behind a pre-recession high of $709 million.
University leaders have sought to contrast the U’s more modest ask to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s request for an added $246 million in state dollars over the biennium, which would make for a more than 17 percent hike. System officials have said the money would fund pay raises, a new information management system, scholarships and a push to address workforce shortages. Unlike the U this time around, Minnesota State officials vowed to freeze undergraduate tuition if lawmakers grant their request.
During last year’s session, the Minnesota State system fared better than the U at the Republican-controlled Legislature, which granted the university slightly more than a third of its request of $147.2 million more for the biennium. Minnesota State got $106 million more over two years, or almost 60 percent of its ask.
Separately, the U is seeking $232 million for infrastructure-related capital investments, most of it for upkeep of existing facilities.
At the Capitol on Wednesday, Kaler introduced several members of the university community to showcase U efforts in teaching, research and outreach. Extension educator Megan Weber spoke about a program that has trained more than 200 volunteers to spot aquatic invasive species.
Marie Manner, a recent Ph.D. graduate, demonstrated a robot she helped design that could allow researchers to detect signs of autism in children earlier, by observing how they respond to its commands in a “Simon Says” game. (“Simon says to clap for President Kaler,” the robot instructed reporters.)
Freshman Chidiogo Orakwue spoke of choosing the Rochester campus for its focus on the health sciences and small class sizes. Orakwue, whose older sister is also a student at the U, hopes to become an obstetrician and build a women’s health clinic in her native Nigeria.
“My goal is to go back home and help as much as I can,” she said.
Kaler noted the U’s governing board hasn’t yet voted on resident tuition and the overall budget for the coming academic year. But the administration is looking at a 2 percent tuition hike for Minnesota students on the Twin Cities campus, with costs on greater Minnesota campuses slated to remain flat. The regents already approved a 10 percent tuition increase for out-of-state students.
“We live in an environment in which we have inflationary pressures and needs to make investments,” he said.
University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel, who has touted her own outreach to that state’s lawmakers, is taking over the U presidency in July.
In recent weeks, Kaler also has made his pitch to lawmakers one on one. Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, who chairs the House higher education committee, said the university’s proposal shouldn’t be a “hard sell.” She said she does want to see additional investment in the state’s college student grant program.
Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, who heads the Senate higher education committee, said the U is “a tremendous asset” to the state.
“We want to make sure we do everything we can to keep them well funded and at the same time keep them accountable,” he said. “We need, as legislators, to ask the tough questions.”
He said that might include gauging progress on limiting administrative costs at the U. When university leaders present their proposal in committee Tuesday, he said he and his colleagues will expect details on how the extra money will be spent. He also said he would like to see undergraduate tuition remain unchanged: “Even a 2 percent increase is a lot for the families and students who will attend the university next year.”