When Minnesotans think of higher education, the University of Minnesota often springs to mind. But with seven universities and 30 colleges serving 375,000 full- and part-time students on 54 campuses, Minnesota State actually is the largest system of higher learning in the state and fourth- — largest in the country.
You read that right. And the fact that you probably didn’t know it (and likely didn’t know that the name is now Minnesota State and not the old, unwieldy Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, or MnSCU), is part of the problem this undervalued system faces as it attempts to best position itself for the future.
Commendably, Minnesota State is undertaking the kind of rigorous self-evaluation and “re-imagining” that too few public institutions do. The too-little-told story here is that this system punches above its weight, with an economic impact of $8 billion. Its tuitions are the lowest in the state, and its schools make expansive use of electronic textbooks to hold down costs.
The occupational skills, certificates and workforce training to fill the critical need for skilled tradespeople that politicians are buzzing about? Minnesota State delivers 15,000 specialized workforce programs and classes, often developed in response to local needs and in conjunction with local employers.
Even more important, in a state that struggles with the largest K-12 achievement gap in the country, this system serves more lower-income, minority and first-generation college students than every other higher-education institution in Minnesota combined. Minnesota State has smartly leveraged the system to help small campuses offer more through online programs and partnerships.
So what’s the problem? Enrollment has been dropping at a number of campuses, in part because Minnesota State is sensitive to employment trends. Some campuses, such as Metropolitan State, St. Paul College and even tiny Pine Technical, have grown over the years. Others, such as St. Cloud State University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College, have shrunk substantially.
With many more older, returning and part-time students, Minnesota State’s rolls tend to rise during recessions and fall when jobs are more plentiful. Like other higher-education systems, its schools have been hit by a growing list of demographic trends. An aging America means a dwindling pool of college-age students.
The system’s 54 campuses all require upkeep and modernization, no matter the enrollment trend of the moment. This year’s capital request at the Legislature is $150 million, needed to replace roofs, boilers, electrical grids, security systems and more, coupled with a biennial budget request up $246 million, or 17 percent, to help hold down tuition, update critical technology, better address workforce gaps and create grant programs to better reach out to diverse and low-income populations.
That’s a tough case to make at a Legislature that will be besieged with funding requests from all corners, including a $200 million capital request from the University of Minnesota and biennial budget request up $87 million, or 7 percent. To its credit, Minnesota State is working hard to clarify its mission, sharpen its focus and move more nimbly to meet a changing economy and reach more broadly to workers who need to update their skills to become more competitive and climb higher.
“We’re the best value in town,” Chancellor Devinder Malhotra told the Star Tribune Editorial Board last month. He said that in this reevaluation, “Everything is on the table. No filters.” Chairman Mike Vekich, businessman and go-to troubleshooter for governors over the last 20 years, said that while it’s not a first option, further consolidation “is possible.” With an annual college tuition of $5,300 and university tuition of $8,000, not to mention individually priced courses that working students can take to boost their skills, Minnesota State makes possible the advancement so many Minnesotans need and want. While each campus plays a valuable role in its community and contributes to the whole, system resources can spread only so thin.
Funding higher education is a perennial struggle. Minnesota State should be applauded for its re-examination effort. Done correctly, it can yield efficient innovation that makes it easier to justify Minnesota’s investment.