Higher-education promises are flying fast as the Nov. 8 election approaches. Candidates for the Legislature in both parties say they want to rein in the high cost of college. Some are telling the Star Tribune Editorial Board that they’re eager to renew a tuition freeze at public colleges and universities imposed in 2013 and renewed in part in 2015.
To them, we make a plea: Please heed the cry for help that rose in June from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, formerly called MnSCU and now simply Minnesota State. The larger of Minnesota’s two higher-ed systems is on a financially unsustainable course, a Minnesota State work group reported. It projected disaster-level shortfalls by 2025 — $66 million to $475 million per year — if the system’s current spending and revenue patterns do not change.
Past tuition freezes contributed to those adverse trends — and future ones likely would make matters worse. Minnesota State’s governing board and the leader who will succeed retiring Chancellor Steven Rosenstone have a huge task ahead. Legislative candidates should avoid making promises about college tuition that would add to the system’s challenge.
Politicians often cast a critical eye at educators as they decry high tuition and student debt loads. But the single greatest contributor to tuition increases at Minnesota State in the past two decades has been the Legislature itself. State support per student (in constant dollars) in 2014-15 was 23 percent below 2001-02; the share of campus operating revenue derived from state appropriations dropped from 66 percent to 44 percent in the same period.
The DFL-controlled 2013 Legislature vowed to reverse that trend when it added $230 million to higher-ed appropriations for the ensuing two years. But it also ordered Minnesota State to freeze tuition (and asked the constitutionally autonomous Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota to do the same).
The result, the work group report said, is that “the new state funds have mostly offset the lost tuition resulting from the tuition freeze and have not been a source of new operating revenue. The overall size of the funding pie has not increased; rather, the sizes of the tuition and appropriation slices have merely shifted.”
Minnesota State’s work group was realistic enough not to point to a huge infusion of state funds as the solution to its woes. Neither did it call for big tuition increases. “The capacity and propensity of either of these sources to increase significantly are modest at best,” its report acknowledged.
But denying Minnesota State trustees the ability to charge even modestly higher tuition won’t help the system address its challenges. It must balance its books even as it retools its operations to meet the needs of a rapidly changing student population — a population more demographically and culturally diverse than ever before. To fulfill its mission of service to this state, Minnesota State may need to spend more per student, not less, in coming years.
The work group served notice that the system’s problems can no longer be managed via belt-tightening alone. “The annual ritual of cutting expenditures to close the gap between state revenue and tuition and operating costs is simply not a viable long-term solution. … There is a need for pronounced changes to life as usual that will touch all system stakeholders.”
Legislators will do well this campaign season to offer Minnesota State a supportive hand — and to avoid promises that will tie the system’s hands.