Until the 1940s, Minnesota was a relatively poor state. Today, we rank among the wealthiest in the country — home to the most Fortune 500 companies per capita and an above-average per capita income. This generational transformation did not happen by accident. Through the foresight of leaders who recognized the importance of higher education, initiatives like the GI Bill, Pell grant program, and state grant program in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s made college affordable to an entire generation of young Minnesotans.
In the 1980s, Gov. Rudy Perpich declared Minnesota the “Brainpower State” — and rightly so. Minnesota has one of the best-educated workforces in the country, and is home to a diverse and growing economy anchored by agricultural and food products, mining and manufacturing, finance and banking, and medical products and research. In his 1987 State of the State address, Perpich called on the Legislature to continue investing in higher education. Rudy understood that “our state universities will increasingly become regional development centers … serving as catalysts for long-term development in economic growth and vitality.”
Today, Minnesota stands at a crossroad. Will we continue to be the Brainpower State? Student debt is at record levels, but the need for higher education is greater than ever. Minnesota no longer competes with South Dakota and Wisconsin, but with South Korea and other countries in a global marketplace. Right now, Minnesota is experiencing its most significant budget surplus in years. Gov. Mark Dayton and I believe that we should use it to renew our commitment to higher education for another generation.
This year, we have proposed a two-year tuition freeze for the 300,000 students at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) and at the University of Minnesota. Our proposal also would make a significant investment in the state grant program — allowing an additional 7,500 students to receive grants, and increasing the amount of financial assistance for 93,000 students statewide.
The investments that Dayton and I have proposed won’t solve our state’s college affordability challenge, but they will move Minnesota in the right direction. Equally important, our proposal treats all students equitably — freezing tuition at all public institutions and providing additional state grant aid to all students.
Unfortunately, not everyone at the State Capitol shares this commitment to access and equity. A recent Star Tribune editorial detailed the House Republican higher education proposal, which pits the University of Minnesota against MnSCU for funding. Their proposal provides $105 million for MnSCU schools and $0 for the U of M. Further compounding the problem, the Republican legislation cuts $53 million from the state grant program, reducing aid to 85,000 students.
With the state’s first surplus in years, the governor and I believe now is the time to make college more affordable, not less. Letting this opportunity pass by or be impeded by parochialism would be a disservice to our students and the future prosperity of Minnesota. With a $1.9 billion surplus, we have rare opportunity to help strengthen Minnesota’s higher education system for future generations.
This year, let’s reinvigorate a higher education system still suffering after a decade of disinvestment. Let’s ensure that every future innovator, entrepreneur, and Minnesotan who wants a better life has access to higher education. Let’s reinvest in a system that helped make Minnesota a prosperous place over 60 years ago: a world-class higher education system.
Tina Smith is lieutenant governor of Minnesota.