State university students and faculty tell it to the House

Today, faculty and students told the state House's higher education committee about their experiences and attitudes toward budget cuts.

A lot of the stories they told legislators weren't pretty.

I had to leave an hour into it, but here are the highlights of what I heard:

  • Loss of faculty. English professor Don Larsson of Minnesota State University - Mankato, who serves as the president of the Inter Faculty Organization, said state universities will lose about 10 percent of their faculty by May 2012 -- almost 300 positions. For the past two years, 85 percent of the faculty have had no salary increase, a concession the IFO made during negotiations. "The IFO has shown willingness to do its part, to make sacrifices. We ask that you recognize our efforts." (Read: Please keep our sacrifice in mind when it comes time to cut the budget.)

  • Lack of a public stake. Echoing the views of others in the industry, professor Monte Bute of Metropolitan State University said legislators have long considered higher education a "public good" -- something that benefits all of society. ("The key to prosperity is an educated workforce.") But in the last decade it has been treated as a "private good" -- something that benefits only individuals in their careers. That attitude has hurt higher ed and bodes ill for the future, he suggested.

  • Efficiency. After Larsson said his union has made sacrifices when asked to in years past, Bute said MnSCU institutions are models of efficiency: "MnSCU ... and state universities are among most efficient, least costly per student in the country. We have been productive in a way that if we were a Fortune 500 company, we’d make headlines in the Wall Street Journal."

  • Much more with much less. The professors warned that if proposed cuts take place, funding will be back to 2001 levels -- while MnSCU institutions handle twice as many students as they did then.

  • Students pay the price. Andrew Spaeth, chairman of the Minnesota State University Student Association, said the average student graduates with about $26,000 in debt, and asked the committee, "It is hard for our graduates to contribute to the economy when they are shouldered with that kind of debt." Students pay 56 percent of higher ed costs in Minnesota, he said, and tuition has increased nearly 100 percent in the last decade. He warned that when it's his younger brother's time to study, "he'll pay double what I pay now if we go down this path."

  • And they can't earn enough. Amanda Bardonner, a board member of the student association, said mom and dad's view of the working student is out of date: "Students are no longer able to work and save enough money in the summer months to cover expenses during the school year like our parents and grandparents were able to." And at her school, St. Cloud State University, the number of students looking for financial aid increased 22 percent just since the last academic year.

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