Here’s a plea from a veteran observer of state budget crises: This time, do better by higher education. The usual way of rebalancing a listing state budget with disproportionately deep cuts to colleges, universities and student aid would now put too much that Minnesotans value at risk.

Word that Minnesota’s 2020-21 state budget has fallen into a $2.4 billion hole — and is undoubtedly still falling — is bringing out the budget-balancing playbooks that, from my former perch in the State Capitol basement, I saw at least five times through 40 years. Whether the forecasted shortfall was big ($6.2 billion in 2011) or small ($800 million in 1987), the remedy governors and legislators employed had a common element: big cuts in higher education funding.

We hate to do this, the House budgeters always lamented. (They probably did. But they also knew that colleges and universities could and would raise tuition to stay afloat.)

As soon as we can, they assured, we’ll bump up appropriations to both institutions and the State Grant Program, which flows to low- and middle-income students in both public and private colleges and universities. (But when the state’s bottom line shifted from red to black, other demands generally were deemed more pressing. Higher education spending was often slow to recover, and sometimes had not when the next crisis hit. As a result, after each downturn, Minnesota schools — particularly the University of Minnesota — became more tuition-dependent.)

We know how important higher education is to Minnesota, they always said.

Do they? The COVID-19 pandemic could soon call that question. It’s threatening to deprive colleges and universities of their customary backstop during hard times — tuition revenue. This could be the first modern-era recession that is not accompanied by a college enrollment surge. One national projection in late April foretold a 20% enrollment drop at four-year schools next fall.

The pandemic is also tempting some policymakers to think that the time has come to replace most in-person college instruction with a lower-cost online model — and to believe that the downside consequences in such a move would be few. That’s a notion that ought to get skeptical scrutiny in Minnesota. It’s far from clear that online study provides students with the leadership preparation that employers in a corporate headquarters state seek.

Granted, it’s not yet clear what will — or won’t — happen on Minnesota campuses next fall. The most optimistic planning scenarios say students will be back on campuses in numbers only slightly down from their pre-COVID levels. Students will need to adjust to spread-out classrooms in odd venues like tennis courts, cafeterias that offer only takeout dining, and athletic competition in far-from-full stadiums. But it can work, say a majority of administrators surveyed this month by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Changes on campus of that sort clearly would involve some cost. But they would be a lot less brutal to college budgets than worse cases, which assume that COVID-19 case numbers keep climbing, fall classes are offered only online, and classrooms and dormitories stay shuttered in the fall or longer. Planners expect that would lead to dramatic enrollment drops, faculty layoffs, program elimination and, for the nation’s weakest schools, an existential threat.

Even then, the immediate pain could be numbed by the “maintenance of effort” string that Congress attached in March to a portion of coronavirus relief funding that flows through states to higher education. But states with budgets deeply in the red can seek a waiver of that requirement. And the hit that an enrollment drop of 20% next fall would inflict on the sprawling Minnesota State system, for example, could amount to nearly $200 million, or 10% of its total operating budget — far more than the federal relief money on offer to date could cushion.

My plea isn’t for the state’s fiscal stewards to completely spare higher education from funding cuts. That’s not realistic, fiscally or politically.

Rather, it’s for lawmakers to recognize that COVID-19 is striking with Minnesota’s colleges and universities in a more vulnerable spot than they were when prior recessions hit. And it has done so at a time when Minnesota’s economy is more in need of the full range of what this state’s postsecondary sector produces, from trade-skill certification to postdoctoral research. Sustaining the above-average economy Minnesotans have come to expect requires a workforce that can serve the state’s 16 Fortune 500 companies and keep startups coming on the cutting edges of medicine, clean energy, artificial intelligence and sustainable agriculture.

What’s more, this time, population trends are not on higher ed’s side. The number of 18-to-34 year olds in Minnesota is projected to decline through 2027, and not return to 2015 levels until 2033.

This time, higher ed cuts should be accompanied by a large measure of strategic planning. I’m thinking a blue-ribbon commission, one that engages stakeholders from throughout the state, including business leaders, historically underserved populations and both public and private colleges and universities. I’m thinking about striving to develop a bipartisan blueprint that’s distinctively Minnesotan and that can outlast one governor or legislative majority.

And even if the best-case scenarios prevail when classes begin this fall, I’m thinking that this work should not wait too long. As I’ve said on this page before, the novel coronavirus is a potent agent of societal change. But when it comes to the future of this state’s best economic asset, its well-educated workforce, Minnesotans — not a virus — should be in charge.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.