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Minnesota Legislature

Mixed grades given to college proposal

Published (3/25/2011)
By Mike Cook
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The omnibus higher education finance bill puts protections in place for students, but leaves officials from the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system very concerned.

Sponsored by Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls), HF1101 would decrease higher education funding by $411 million, or a 14.1 percent base reduction. The total is 10.9 percent lower than the 2010-2011 total forecast. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget calls for a $170.9 million cut to higher education.

Approved March 22 by the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee on an 8-6 vote, and March 24 by the House Ways and Means Committee, it is expected to be on the House floor sometime next week. A Senate omnibus bill, sponsored by Senate President Michelle Fishbach (R-Paynesville) awaits a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.

“This bill probably does more damage to higher education than all of the time I’ve spent here,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona), now in his 13th term. “If this gets to the governor’s desk and he does sign it, it will mean an unfortunate transformation done with a bludgeon.”

“I hear a lot of doom and doom here,” said Rep. David Hancock (R-Bemidji). “I think you will find adversity will oftentimes produce a product that is far better in the long run. … Let’s keep our eye on what we want to do, not on how this is devastating us.”

Nornes said the bill puts protections in place so that students do not bear the brunt of the institution’s money woes.

“This bill fully funds the state grant program, and it also kind of backfills a couple of areas where we looked at cuts,” Nornes said. “There will be no reduction to the work-study program as we previously thought or to the post-secondary child-care grants.”

Further, the bill sets a maximum annual tuition cap of 4 percent for state university students and 2 percent for state college students.

Because of the university’s autonomy, a cap cannot be placed on its tuition increases. However, the legislative expectation is that it will not exceed 5 percent either year.

“Systems are expected to make up about a third of the reduction in state appropriation by increasing tuition. They will also need to reduce spending and reform to live within their means,” Nornes said.

Still, MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick said there is no way to put together a budget with the bill’s funding levels “without inflicting severe pain” on students. He urged the committee to let the MnSCU Board of Trustees set the tuition rate, but added he’d recommend no more than a

5 percent increase.

Edna Mora Szymanski, president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, said system leaders have been planning for a 5 percent tuition increase for next year. She said faculty positions have already been cut assuming that funding level, and that this bill puts another 5-7 faculty positions in jeopardy.

“The cap means an extra $400,000 a year that we don’t have,” she said.

Lake Superior College President Pat Johns said changes have already been put into motion to reduce operational costs, but he fears that capping tuition would limit what institutions can do to help students be successful. He noted things like reductions in class offerings and potential elimination of some academic programs.

“We’ve completely reorganized our administrative structure,” he said. “We put into a motion an 11 percent non-personnel reduction which particularly cuts into our technical and trades programs.”

University of Minnesota CFO Richard Pfitzenreuter said nobody is happy with the bill, and said it’s a result of the target the committee was given. He said it rolls state funding for the university to 1998 levels.

“I see some very, very nasty decisions that are gonna have to be made, particularly by the MnSCU system, in order to balance their budget,” said Rep. Tom Rukavina

(DFL-Virginia).

A number of policy-related provisions are also in the bill, including:

• reversing a 2010 law by reducing the age to participate in the senior citizen higher education program — which, in part, provides free tuition if space is available — from 66 to 62;

• encouraging higher education systems to offer students a guaranteed tuition option that would eliminate any rate fluctuations when the student is in school;

• requiring MnSCU institutions to accept credits from other schools within the system, at the same number of credits, although they can be transferred as elective credits if the curriculum doesn’t match up; and

• removing a mandate requiring campus bookstores, to the greatest extent possible, sell only American made clothing and apparel.

Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud), the lone Republican to vote against the bill, said he couldn’t stand in front of his college economics class and tell those students he made the best possible legislation. “I really think you did the best you could with a bad hand,” he said looking at Nornes. “I wish I could help you.”

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