When University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler came to the State Capitol last week to begin his biennial pitch for a slice of the budget, he seemed a bit like a fellow who had been excluded from a neighborhood party. Just a week into the new legislative session, there already had been a flurry of talk about higher education. But most of it focused on the two-year colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, not the flagship U.

Kaler admitted that he had not been consulted before state Senate DFL leaders announced that Senate File 2 — a high-priority bill for the majority caucus — would provide free community college tuition for qualifying Minnesota high school graduates. He was also surprised when, the next day, President Obama said he would ask Congress for much the same thing.

Kaler didn't say he opposes the idea. But he also didn't voice support for it. "I think that we need higher aspirations than just community colleges for the citizens of Minnesota," he allowed. "I think the state should support higher ed more broadly. The ability to get those first two years out of the way is important. But we don't want to limit our horizons to that level. … For many students, a four-year experience is what they want and need."

His point is well taken. Legislators clearly have heard employers' pleas for more of the technically trained workers who emerge from two-year programs at MnSCU and private colleges like Dunwoody Institute. But legislators should know that Minnesota also faces an impending shortage in professions that require longer study — engineering, teaching, dentistry and other medical workers, to name a few.

Those emerging shortages are among the reasons that 2015 ought to be a banner year at the Legislature for higher ed — that is, for policies and programs that generate more success by more students. That must include efforts to optimize the performances of both MnSCU and the U; to reduce financial barriers to higher learning, and to bring more higher learning into high schools, workplaces and other nontraditional settings.

Higher ed was among the state budget lines that took a disproportionate hit in the wake of the Great Recession. The result at the U (see accompanying graph) has been higher tuition for students, heavier debts for graduates and, inevitably, sticker shock that keeps some would-be students away — even as per-student costs in constant dollars decreased.

The next big dip that's coming to Minnesota appears to be demographic. The number of people between ages 25 and 64 in Minnesota is forecast to decline over the next two decades. That would mean a labor shortage and a drag on the state's economy unless more Minnesotans avail themselves of post-high-school education of every type — two-year, four-year and beyond.

More funding by state taxpayers would "rebalance" higher-ed costs by lightening student loads, Kaler says. It's why the university's Board of Regents is seeking $65.2 million over two years in exchange for a promise to legislators: no tuition increase through 2016-17.

We wish the regents — and the MnSCU Board of Trustees — would not invite legislators into their tuition deliberations in this way. State support should be one of several considerations that governing boards weigh as they set tuition. Market position, campus needs, faculty priorities, the financial composition of the student body and opportunities for efficiency are among other factors that should figure into their thinking.

Legislators are bound to find a tuition freeze proposal politically tempting — though the freeze initiated in 2013 wasn't potent enough to rescue House DFLers from defeat in the 2014 election. But legislators should ask whether a tuition freeze at the price the regents and MnSCU's trustees have named is the best way to deploy state resources in order to maximize student achievement. Today's college costs are an impediment to higher learning for some students and a bargain for others. Legislators should consider whether more help for the students who need it most might do more than a tuition freeze to produce more graduates.

Kaler's Capitol visit reminded legislators of one thing more: Keeping Minnesota's only research university strong would yield dividends that workforce training efforts alone can't deliver. Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to invest $30 million to bolster the U's Medical School, announced Wednesday, is an acknowledgment of that fact.

University research has the potential to solve some of this state's most vexing problems, from curing diabetes and cancer to allowing mining to proceed without ill effects on human health or the natural environment. Those advancements can spur business growth and serve as a talent magnet, even as they improve this state's quality of life.

Legislative stewards of state higher-ed dollars would do well this year to ask how that money can be used to yield more of the skilled workers that are in short supply. But they should also remember that higher education has always been about more than training for employment and that Minnesota's investments in its university have given this state handsome returns.