Even if the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MnSCU) are awarded the full amount of their budget requests, student tuitions will increase more than four percent. It's the lowest rate increase in at least 10 years. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, the new chairman of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance Committee, would like to see it even lower.
"I think our higher education system has been ignored and it needs a shot of money and whether it's reallocating money already in the system or trying to raise some new dollars for the system remains to be seen," Rukavina said.
Rukavina has deep Iron Range roots and zeroes in on predictions that thousands of miners, truckers, millworkers and other laborers will be retiring and there are few replacement workers in the pipeline. He said an investment in the state's educational institutions will help boost the quality of the state's workforce and keep the economy strong.
"Mechanical engineers and metallurgic engineers and all the other jobs that need to be replaced as these baby boomers retire: That's what the higher education system is all about and I want to see that it gets done," he said.
Rukavina said he will begin by hearing from students and their families about barriers to getting an education.
"That's who I'm going to talk to first as my committee starts to go through the committee process and I'll save the bureaucrats and administrators for last," he said.
Boosting college students' skills is an expensive prospect.
At the counseling and advising office for the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, students wait for appointments with staff and scan computer screens with class schedules. Typically, students don't come here until they encounter a problem. But increasingly, said MCTC counselor Nicole Merz, students require more attention. She said so-called intrusive counseling pays off by guiding a student through a rough patch that might derail an otherwise successful educational path.
I'll save the bureaucrats and administrators for lastRep. Tom Rukavina
"You're not sitting there waiting for that student to contact you," Merz said. "If they haven't seen you in a bit of time you make a phone call, you send an email...."
The counselors insert themselves much more into the lives of students who need help.
Of MnSCU's $177 million budget request, $24 million is slated to expand programs that help underserved populations--immigrants, non-English speakers and first generation college students--who historically require the most work. MnSCU Vice Chancellor Linda Baer said the money would create a Minnesota version of the federal program that has a proven track record.
"It's costly," Baer said. "It's time-intensive. It's close to one-on-ones helping to improve students' abilities to make right choices and study and be more ready for their courses."
Baer and other higher education officials in Minnesota have high expectations for the coming legislative session.
At the University of Minnesota, Government Relations Associate Vice President Donna Peterson said the level of discussion about tuition and other higher education issues is promising.
"It feels very optimistic," Peterson said. "We think the president of the University of Minnesota, Bob Bruininks, has led an initiative of how to tell our story at the legislature that we think is positive and is being received well by the legislators we've been talking to."
Among those the university is talking to is Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Senate higher education budget division. She said education officials have every reason to be optimistic.
"We need to recognize that's (higher education) what's made the state strong and that we can't slide," Pappas said. "I think we have been sliding the past four to eight years. We have to invest."
Gov. Pawlenty has proposed offering two years' free tuition for the top 25 percent of Minnesota high school graduates. Pappas said she'd like to see it geared more toward those who need financial help the most, rather than just those who perform well.
"We don't really have an issue like Georgia did of keeping talent in our state," Pappas said. "Talent stays in our state because there are jobs here."
Both MnSCU and the U of M also hope to score money for basic repair and maintenance projects. In addition, the U of M hopes to establish a funding mechanism for more than $300 million of bioscience facilities over the next eight years. The plan passed the Senate last session. Pappas says there is strong support in the Senate to see the plan resurface. Both Pappas and Rukavina say the plan has a better chance now that Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.