Officials outline dire effects of higher education cuts

Richard Pfutzenreuter
Richard Pfutzenreuter, Chief Financial Operator for the University of Minnesota, testifies before the House higher education budget and policy division.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Legislators asked representatives from the University of Minnesota and MnSCU what might happen if they lost hundreds of millions of dollars in funding as the state works to balance its nearly $5 billion deficit.

The answer: staff and faculty layoffs, fewer classes for students, enrollment caps, double digit percentage tuition increases and even campus closings.

The Senate's Higher Education Committee is posing a tough question to the U of M and MnSCU.

As lawmakers balance the state's nearly $5 billion budget deficit, what if funding for each of the systems is cut by as much as 20 percent, a figure that could approach $200 million over the next two years?

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Laura King
Laura King, Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, discusses the impact of potential budget cuts on the MnSCU system.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"I confess that I find trouble even going there. It is so horrendous," said Ann Wynia, president of North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park

Wynia said deep cuts will mean open positions would go unfilled, staff and faculty will be laid off, and a student cafeteria kitchen on campus that desperately needs repairs might close.

But Wynia said raising tuition to make up for the shortfall would be difficult. When the state's higher education budget was handed a 15 percent cut in 2003, tuition at North Hennepin was raised by 28 percent over two years. This time she said the cuts shouldn't be paid for by students.

"I honestly cannot imagine that we can come out of these current kinds of cuts with that same kind of solution," Wynia said. "So that really puts a great deal of pressure on us to look elsewhere."

Protecting students from funding shortfalls, especially if they reach 10 or 20 percent, will be difficult.

MnSCU's chief financial officer, Laura King, said in the case of a 20 percent budget cut, her system would prefer to implement a series of fixes. King said they would include layoffs, higher tuition, enrollment caps and potentially closing some of MnSCU's 54 campus across the state.

"Whether it's higher tuition, enrollment caps, fewer course offerings, or reduced student services, our students will see those impacts," King said.

King also said that if they took only one approach, they could offset the cut by closing as many as 18 community colleges.

Both the U of M and MNSCU have reserves they may tap to help ease the loss of funding. The U of M has almost $14 million in its reserve fund, MnSCU has more than $70 million.

University of Minnesota CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter said he can't be certain how his school would respond to a theoretical funding cut of $200 million. But, Pfutzenreuter agreed with MnSCU. Students have been forced to take on too much of the burden through increases in tuition in recent years.

"We know the stress that tuition puts on students and we're doing everything we can to cushion that increase and we're doing everything we can to cushion that increase," Pfutzenreuter said. "We're going to continue that effort as we move into the next round of budget reductions."

The state's higher education officials will have a better idea of how to approach their portion of the budget deficit later this month when Governor Pawlenty releases his budget targets for the session. But they admit the picture for Minnesota colleges could be even more grim when a new budget forecast comes out in February, potentially showing an increase in the state's deficit.