We can’t think of a good reason for the GOP-controlled state House to send a higher-education bill to conference committee that provides no funding increase for the University of Minnesota and reduces student financial aid via the State Grant Program.
Several bad reasons leap to mind. Parochialism, for one. The House bill provides $105 million more than forecast for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system for 2016-17, and $0 for the U. Might that be because many more GOP legislative districts include one or more of the 54 MnSCU campuses than one of the university’s five campuses? We hope not. Surely legislators know that the state’s only research university is an essential economic engine for the entire state.
Similarly, we don’t like assuming that partisanship is behind the House’s decision. Yes, only two of the U’s five campuses sit in districts represented by Republicans. And only those two — in Crookston and Morris — are beneficiaries of earmarked funds in the House bill. Crookston would get $2.15 million for agricultural education; Morris would get $1.4 million for campus improvements of the sort ordinarily financed via state bonds. But surely no legislator believes that there’s a partisan tilt to the quest for knowledge at the U.
Likewise, it’s hard to fathom that legislators think the State Grant Program is too large, especially at a time when steep student loan debt is hobbling an entire generation’s advancement. Yet the House bill moves $53 million in program funds to MnSCU, where it helps pay for a partial tuition freeze and a 1 percent reduction in tuition in 2016-17 at two-year institutions. Dayton administration higher-education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller said that for 85,000 State Grant recipients, that would translate into a cut of $295 per year per full-time student.
Pogemiller spent 30 years in the Legislature. He knows well the political forces that can shrink an education funding bill. In a letter to the House and Senate higher-ed funding chairs, he said empathetically: “A low budget target has inhibited the [House] committee’s ability to make comprehensive investments.” We suspect Pogemiller is right. The House GOP’s decision to prioritize tax cuts over increased education investments as it assembled its 2016-17 budget this session narrowed the higher-ed committee’s options. Both the U and MnSCU came to the Capitol pleading for funds sufficient for continuation of the last two years’ tuition freeze. House GOP leaders evidently saw an advantage in saying a partial yes to one of them rather than no to both.
But that choice does a disservice to State Grant recipients, including those at MnSCU’s colleges, where grant reductions are projected to nearly erase the gain of a projected 1 percent tuition reduction in 2016-17. It turns a deaf ear to pleas for relief from heavy debt burdens.
And it’s an ill-timed slap at Minnesota’s educational flagship, the institution that more than any other makes this state a player in today’s knowledge-based economy. Minnesotans know better: 69 percent of respondents to a U-sponsored opinion poll in December said the university is not receiving sufficient funding. The Legislature’s higher-ed conferees need to catch up with public opinion and the public’s priorities.