Cuts in state higher-education funding have been depressingly routine in recent years, so much so that it takes a big reduction to create a ripple of objection.

That's one way to assess the scale of the $411 million higher-education appropriation cut that's been proposed for fiscal 2012-13 by both the House and Senate Republican majorities. It's a 14 percent whack from forecasted base funding for the next two years.

Those numbers are large enough to have filled a large Metropolitan State University library room to overflowing last Wednesday. Sign-bearing protesters stomped and cheered as students, faculty and administrators told Gov. Mark Dayton and a pair of DFL legislators that the GOP cuts go too far.

We agree. Abruptly taking the University of Minnesota back to 1998 funding levels and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MnSCU) back to 1999 -- even though together they serve some 50,000 more students than they did in those years -- is unacceptable.

The bills that now sit in conference committee are economic time bombs that, if allowed to go off, would do major damage to the academic and research infrastructure that a successful 21st century economy must have.

For years, Minnesota politicians in both parties have vowed to make education a funding priority. But when they arrive in office, they've treated it like just another second-tier bureaucracy, ripe for cutting.

In a state with Minnesota's economic aspirations, higher education deserves more enlightened treatment.

But we also agree with Republican lawmakers and others who say that higher education in Minnesota is due for cost-reducing structural changes. The financial havoc that the GOP's proposal would create is too destructive.

But maintaining the status quo is not an option, either. Even the more generous 2012-13 budget that Dayton crafted, bolstered by a major tax increase that the Legislature's majorities oppose, would cut $170 million and leave the systems positioned for more cuts in 2014-15.

This year, Dayton and legislators should set in motion a decision-making process to update the state's higher-education policy and revise its structure to better match the realities of the next several decades. A Citizens League study of state higher ed, now in its early stages, could provide helpful input to that work.

The funding model of a quarter-century ago -- state pays two-thirds the cost of an undergraduate's education; student (or financial aid as needed) pays one-third -- is broken.

Students at the more state-dependent MnSCU schools now pay nearly 60 percent of the cost of their education. At the University of Minnesota, tuition revenue surpassed tax revenue as a source of institutional support several years ago, with no end to the trend in sight.

The Republican response is to impose caps on tuition increases for 2012-13. That's micromanagement that usurps the authority of the two systems' governing boards. It also risks an erosion in quality that would ill serve this state.

A better response would be to engage those governing boards and other stakeholders in recommending a new configuration for the state's higher-education systems.

It should include a mechanism for measuring what state spending produces and for holding educators responsible for the results.

A regional version of that work has already begun within the MnSCU system in the southwestern quadrant of the state.

Southwest State University and the five campuses of the two-year Minnesota West Technical and Community College are examining "administrative and organizational structures, including the current institutional configuration," a release explained last week.

A leaner but still productive structure should result.

Talks of that sort should not involve just one system. The state's best opportunities for improving higher-ed output while reducing cost likely involve cross-system changes.

The state's employers are the other stakeholders that ought to get involved. The business community has been too quiet at the Capitol in recent years as their best workforce-development allies have been dealt cut after cut.

At last week's Metropolitan State roundtable, only one business leader, Randy Kehr of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, spoke in opposition to the budget Republicans contemplate. He ought to have more company from his peers.

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