Candidates see little chance of increasing higher ed budgets

University of Minnesota students
Students walk between classes on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

College officials in Minnesota hope for an increase in funding next legislative session following years of declining state support for higher education.

At the University of Minnesota, for example, state funding went from $709 million in 2008 to $591 million this year, a 16 percent decline. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system saw similar drops in funding.

College officials say that's forced them to lay off instructors, cram more students into classrooms and increase tuition.

But none of Minnesota's three major party candidates for governor sees money being available for an increase in light of the state's $5.8 billion deficit.

At a recent debate at the University of Minnesota, Republican nominee Tom Emmer made it clear he's doesn't think tight university budgets can all be blamed on funding cuts.

"Some leadership in the higher education institutions like to point to state funding as the only problem," Emmer said. "State funding is not the only problem."

Of the three major party candidates, Emmer is the only one with a plan to cut a significant amount from the higher education budget.

His budget calls for a $312 million dollar reduction in higher education funding over the next two fiscal years. It's part of his plan to balance the books by cutting state spending.

Emmer also suggests colleges should find ways to provide "a more affordable product".

"Perhaps we should look at some of the administration," he said. "Perhaps we should look at how we make this more affordable, because inflation on college campuses is running way beyond where it's going everywhere else."

In contrast, Democratic nominee Mark Dayton says he'd like to increase funding for Minnesota colleges.

"It's to reverse this disinvestment in our higher education and our K-12 systems that are going to sacrifice the future of our state," Dayton said in an interview posted on the MnSCU website.

Dayton his plan to raise more revenue by hiking taxes on the state's top earners could yield more money for colleges.

But during the recent debate at the University of Minnesota, Dayton said that could only happen after the state eliminates its deficit.

"Before you can add additional money for something like the University of Minnesota -- no matter how commendable that is, and that would certainly be one of my goals -- you have to balance that budget," he said.

However, Dayton's proposed tax hike would not provide enough money to close the budget gap, let alone provide new money for higher education.

Independence Party candidate Tom Horner said he plans to hold higher education funding steady. But like the other candidates he's not hopeful there's going to be money available for much else.

"I think it's going to be very difficult to add a lot of new money in higher education in the next two years," Horner said. "My commitment is that we don't make the problem worse. Let's at a minimum look at the projected funding and make sure we're delivering funding at least at the level we ought to."

During the recent gubernatorial debate at the university, Horner said both of the state's higher education systems need to cut costs by sharing resources and reducing the number of majors offered at multiple colleges.

And since the two systems and the state are all looking for new leaders, Horner thinks it's time to reshape how higher education operates.

"We need to use that as an opportunity to have a conversation around priorities, and what's the outcome we need, and put everything on the table," he said.

The three candidates for governor say the state's expected budget shortfall will make it difficult to deal with another major concern of students and families, rising tuition.

The cost of tuition has doubled at Minnesota colleges in the last decade. Tuition prices at the state's public colleges are some of the highest in the nation, and Minnesota college graduates now have an average debt load of more than $27,000, the sixth highest in the country.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.