Why does the U get the same appropriation as MnSCU?

Have you compared the amount of money that the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) systems have received in the funding bills passed this week?

They get about the same amount from the state: just over $1 billion each, with the U getting about $5 million more than MnSCU.

A reader wanted to know why they get the same amount, considering that MnSCU is so much larger:

  • MnSCU: 31 campuses (universities and two-year colleges). Serves 277,000 credit-earning students -- plus another 150,000 or so who take non-credit courses.

  • U of M: 5 campuses, 65,000 students.

What gives?

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I thought I'd first call someone outside the two systems. I rang Mark Misukanis, former director of fiscal policy and research for the state Office of Higher Education.

He told me:

"I’m surprised it’s as close as it is. It has been close -- but never this close."

Here are some (partial?) reasons he gave for why the U gets so much money:

Program costs. The U tends to offer graduate degrees in high-cost professional programs such as law, medicine and dentistry, as well as heavy research areas. Professors' salaries tend to be higher in those research and professional fields, and equipment and supplies required in class are costly. MnSCU, in contrast, tends to offer graduate degrees in lower-cost fields such as education. MnSCU institutions' graduate degree programs in the sciences "are applied – not research-based," Misukanis told me. "They're not paying for high-cost chemical engineers or chemical Ph.D.'s." And yet, as Misukanis acknowledges, a good chunk of the funding for such research is "soft money," or outside money from grants, sponsorships and the like. Figuring out just how much that amounts to is a complicated task.

  • Side projects. The appropriations for the U include money for things beyond the traditional classroom and campus, such as: the statewide agriculture and extension service ($43 million), which does research, education and outreach for producers throughout the state; rural-physicians, health sciences and residency programs ($4.9 million); Institute of Technology ($1.4 million); the Bell Museum and various research institutes ($5 million); partnership with the Mayo Clinic ($7.5 million) and Mayo foundation ($1.4 million); and Academic Health Center ($22 million). Those programs total more than $85 million.

  • Politics. "It's history, tradition, convention," Misukanis said. The U has long been the big gorilla of Minnesota education, and has had a much longer relationship with the legislature than has MnsCU, which became one entity only around 15 years ago. (Before then, all of the various colleges and universities were splinters, each fighting for its slice of the pie.) The U gets a lot of national publicity and brings in many millions in grant money. "There has been a huge amount of deference on the part of (legislators) toward credentials and the standing of U officials," Misukanis said. MnSCU finance chief Laura King has argued in legislative hearings that MnSCU deserves a greater share of funding because of the sheer number of students it serves, but the numbers don't seem to have changed significantly.

  • Vagueness. Misukanis said it's not well laid out by the state just how much the U and MnSCU are to get for each project and what it's to be used for. "No one has been really clear about why we give as much as we do, and what we're getting for it," he said. Tracking research money is difficult, and he's never been able to find out what the per-pupil instruction costs are at the U. "Until we (get full transparency), I can't say who should get more."

So that's a partial look. I've got calls in to other education officials, so we'll see what they say. And I'll try to go back and see how funding levels have compared over the years.

If you have any ideas, feel free to chime in.