Beside the little pink medication cart, the new machine stands tall, sleek and silver. It looks like the future, which it is.

Nursing and pharmacology students at Dakota County Technical College formerly practiced dispensing medicine solely from the little cart, which opens with your average key. Now, they press their thumbprint against the screen of the Pyxis MedStation 4000 and select a patient. A drawer of pills pops open.

This smart dispenser is exactly the kind of upgrade the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system envisions with its two-year budget request at the Capitol. MnSCU wants $21 million for new equipment and technology for in-demand fields — to be matched by businesses in desperate need of welders, nurses and heavy equipment operators.

Nearly all hospitals in the Twin Cities metro area use the Pyxis MedStation 4000, said Bill Vanstralen, a nursing instructor at Dakota County Technical College. Students need to know how to use it before they hit the clinic floors, he said. "We can't do a two-hour orientation, killing their clinical time, learning how to do something they can easily learn how to do here."

And according to Mary Rothchild, senior director for workforce development for the system of state universities and two-year colleges: "It's a challenge for us to keep up-to-date with the equipment needs in some of these technologies. We need to partner with businesses in multiple ways to do it."

Yet MnSCU's budget request is embroiled in legislators' larger debate about whether higher education dollars ought to be spent on new programs — or on holding down tuition.

Some faculty members also question whether this setup is the best way to solve the so-called "skills gap" between job openings and people looking for work. They argue that the "leveraged equipment program" aims to benefit businesses, not students.

"The question we have is: Who's leveraging who?" said Russ Stanton, lobbyist for the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents faculty at MnSCU's seven state universities. "Is this really a scheme whereby the people we're doing customized training for are offloading their equipment costs on the state and calling it higher education?"

'We want to scale up'

MnSCU's request is a sequel to a 2012 deal. The state put in one-time funding of $456,000, and 53 businesses, vendors and foundations contributed $731,000 in cash and in-kind donations. Minnesota West Community and Technical College got a mobile welding lab, St. Cloud State University an X-ray diffractometer and Dakota County Technical College the medication machine.

"We want to scale up this very successful program statewide," MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone told the House higher education committee last month.

The new request holds MnSCU accountable, he said. The second year of funding would be spent only after the system shows that money was matched dollar-for-dollar by private funds.

The equipment budget at Central Lakes College in Brainerd shrank from more than $1 million in the early 2000s to $690,900 in 2009, numbers from the college show. In 2013, it dipped to about $133,700.

Through years of state funding cuts, "our equipment budgets have suffered," said Larry Lund­blad, the college's president. "We're basically doing minor replacements at this point."

He acknowledged that companies regularly contribute equipment, cash and materials for the college's career and technical programs. The college also nabbed a U.S. Department of Labor grant that will, in part, pay for advanced manufacturing equipment.

Stanton and the faculty organization want state money to be used to freeze tuition and fees, which have risen to an average of $5,355 at the system's two-year colleges and $7,341 at its universities.

"You don't need a special appropriation" for equipment, Stanton said. "This stuff happens already."

Students, however, "see the need for this funding on a daily basis," Moriah Miles, state chairwoman of the Minnesota State University Student Association, told legislators.

Her group supports MnSCU's budget request, which assumes a 3 percent tuition increase in each of the next two years. It also includes funding for internships and programs to help boost graduation rates.

"Many of our universities are training students on equipment that is out-of-date," said Miles, a senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "This is one investment we need to get our system back to the level our students and employers expect."

In Jackson, Minn., AGCO's tractor assembly plant needs welders. Badly. That's why the company put $15,000 toward a second mobile welding lab at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

Businesses contributed $102,600 toward the project, plus $177,300 worth of equipment. The state's share: $74,779.

"If I could find 20 skilled welders right now, I'd take them," said Kim Phillips, employee relations manager for the agricultural equipment manufacturer. The company pays welders $16.58 to $21.93 an hour, Phillips said.

The college trains 12 students at a time in a 120-hour program that includes blueprint reading. AGCO hired six of the 10 graduates from the first session.

AGCO likely would have contributed to the MinnWest lab without the promise of a match, Phillips said, but "it would have been a stretch" to fund the project without state money. She said she believes Minnesota ought to invest in technical education to attract people from elsewhere.

"We have the work available," she said. "We just need the skills."