When Janet Nguyen first heard that Gov. Tim Walz’s budget would give the University of Minnesota far less than it requested this year, the sophomore student deployed her six roommates. They each called the governor’s office to tell him to put up more money.
A first-generation college student and campus government representative, Nguyen said she is personally worried about a potential tuition increase. She believes that for some classmates, it could determine whether they can stay in school.
Nguyen and other student leaders at Minnesota’s public colleges and universities called Walz’s original budget plan in February a disappointment, saying it continues a troublesome saga of lower state spending per student in higher education. Walz responded Friday with a revised budget adding another $13 million for Minnesota State and $12 million for the University of Minnesota.
“Our families, our students and our educators across Minnesota convinced me that we needed to change this,” he said.
Walz’s budget now includes 26 percent of the additional $246 million that Minnesota State asked for and 59 percent of the University of Minnesota’s requested funding boost of $87 million. The schools still face another challenge as they turn to the Legislature, where Senate and House leaders are drawing up their own spending plans.
When inflation is factored in, the state’s investment in the public institutions lags where it was pre-recession and 20 years ago.
Walz said Friday he would like to see a tuition freeze, but University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said that’s not possible without more money from the state. Kaler said Walz’s budget increase takes some pressure off tuition, but the U still would have to look to students for support. He is also looking at the alternatives.
“That means cuts. That means diminution in compensation. It could mean reducing staff and, at the end of the day, it would dramatically affect what students are able to get from the U in terms of advising, support, career advice, counseling, class availability,” he said.
The University of Minnesota has been urging students, staff and alumni to join an e-mail and Twitter campaign to get Walz to change his budget. And student government leaders from all five U campuses took the unusual step of passing the same resolution calling on the administration to spend more on their schools and keep them affordable. The resolution, which they sent to legislators and the governor, noted that Walz previously committed to once again having the state cover two-thirds of the cost of attending a state college or university.
“That’s where we need to be,” said Dennis Olson, commissioner of the state Office of Higher Education. He said administration is open to other ways to raise money to meet that threshold.
Minnesota State students and faculty are also pushing for more.
Inver Hills Community College instructor Matt Williams handed Gov. Tim Walz a fat stack of notecards from faculty at two-year schools across the state during an event this month. The handwritten messages stressed the importance of funding state colleges.
“There is a lot of hope riding on Governor Walz and his leadership in the governor’s residence,” said Williams, who is vice president of the Minnesota State College Faculty union. He noted that as a candidate, Walz tapped into a national conversation about student debt and advocated for two years of free tuition.
Williams called Walz, a former high school teacher, a friend of education. He added, “Friends sometimes have to have tough conversations.”
Walz’s revised budget reduces higher education spending in other areas. It cuts $4 million from a new initiative to help adults re-enroll in postsecondary education and reduces by $11 million the additional funding he proposed for tuition assistance grants. Meanwhile, some public school students and faculty, including Williams, have raised concerns about the grants benefiting students at private colleges.
Thirty-five percent of the total state grant money offered in 2018 went to students at state colleges and universities, while 29 percent went to University of Minnesota students and 36 percent went to students at private nonprofit or for-profit schools, according to Office of Higher Education data.
The Minnesota Association of Private College Students sent Walz a letter this month saying in his short time in office he has made “tremendous efforts” to support the grant program.
State grants work in concert with federal Pell Grants. The federal program subsidizes more of the tuition for students from very low-income families. State grants also extend aid to families that make a bit more.
“Low-income students have great barriers to college in terms of affordability, but so do many middle-income families,” Minnesota Private Colleges President Paul Cerkvenik said.
The state sees a good return on the dollars it spends on private schools, he said, noting that they produce about 30 percent of the four-year degrees granted each year in the state. Private colleges advocated for $92 million in new funding for state grants, Cerkvenik said.
“Like all budgetary requests,” he added, “there was an aspirational aspect to that.”
In addition to his budget, Walz proposed a large infrastructure and public works borrowing package that would help maintain public colleges’ and universities’ campuses. His proposal includes $300 million that would be divided evenly between Minnesota State and the U.
Schools might not be satisfied with Walz’s budget plan, said Olson of the state Office of Higher Education, but “hopefully they’re understanding that the projects they proposed that are highly needed on their campuses will be addressed through bonding.”
Senate leadership, however, has said this is not the year for such a large bonding bill.
Frankie Becerra, president of the organization representing community and technical college students, said students are trying to sway legislators. Instead of focusing on spending, he said they have been talking to lawmakers about the importance of an educated workforce. It’s a message he also shared in a letter to Walz on Tuesday, when he asked the governor to shift his budget to focus on the Minnesota State system rather than putting a lot more money into state grants.
“When there is a workforce shortage in many skilled jobs, our state’s economy cannot afford to create more barriers for these students in obtaining a degree,” Becerra wrote.
Nguyen said U students are also taking their stories to legislators en masse.
“When we come in numbers I feel like we are taken more seriously,” she said. “And there’s a lot of power in that.”