It says a lot about the state of the economy when Minnesota college officials say they're OK with a plan that cuts their funding 6 percent.
Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal reduces the funding Minnesota's public colleges were expecting to get in the next two years by $153 million.
It's early in the legislative session, and colleges worry they face deeper cuts as lawmakers wrestle with the state's projected $6.2 billion deficit.
Sheila Wright, the director of the state's Office of Higher Education, puts the governor's budget plan for colleges in terms anyone in Minnesota can understand.
Wright says Dayton's proposal is like the body's reaction to extreme cold and hypothermia.
"And at that moment the body draws from it's extremities, in order to protect the core," she said.
In this case the core is a financial aid program that serves 84,000 low-income Minnesota college students every year.
"We have chosen to protect the core which is the Minnesota State Grant program in the Office of Higher Education," she said. "No cuts will be there at that program."
Cuts will be made to other programs at the Office of Higher Education, like childcare subsidies for low-income students, outreach programs to prepare students for college, and some scholarships and grants.
The extremities that may be feeling a bit frostbitten, in Wright's analogy, are the state's two higher education systems, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which are facing the 6 percent cut.
University officials say that at this point they're, OK with that reduction.
The university's chief financial officer, Richard Pfutzenreuter, said that kind of cut will require budget cuts at the university, and a salary freeze next year for employees, but it will keep increases in tuition low.
"We feel we'll be able to hold tuition increases for the upcoming academic year at a very modest amount. Probably something in the neighborhood of the projected inflation [rate], which is around 1.5 percent for next year," he said.
But Pfutzenreuter knows Dayton's plan comes early in the legislative session and the university could still face major cuts down the road.
Cuts that go deeper than 6 percent, Pfutzenreuter says, could require layoffs at the University of Minnesota and a bigger increase in tuition.
Officials at MnSCU say Dayton's 6 percent cut in funding would mean a tuition increase of less than 5 percent for students, but they don't have a specific number just yet.
MnSCU's chief financial officer, Laura King, says at this point colleges in the system are planning for any number of outcomes.
"It has been really difficult to get a bead on what we should prepare for," she said. "So they've been modeling alternative results. And until the legislative session is over, we still don't know quite what we're planning for."
Several MnSCU colleges have already released budget plans that end academic programs and lay off employees, in preparation for the cuts they assume will be coming this session.
Whatever happens to the state's higher ed budget, Travis Johnson, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association, wants to make sure students aren't unfairly burdened by cuts.
"Making sure it's a fair balance among the entire system and not just specifically raising tuition, and not cutting specifically programs, but having conversations about all those pieces and bringing the right people to the table to talk about it," Johnson said.
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, who chairs a higher education committee at the capitol, said Dayton's cuts are a start, but they'll likely need to go deeper.
"I think that we can work with those cuts. Obviously there's going to have to be cuts in quite a few of the area's of the budget," Fischbach said. "But I think that the problem with the governor's budget are those tax increases."
Dayton's plan to cut colleges' funding by 6 percent relies on his proposal to fix the state's deficit through tax increases on Minnesota's highest earners.
If that's not part of the final budget package, colleges likely face deeper cuts in funding and more hard decisions about their own budgets.
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