Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

The U’s perspective on its budget and policies: Context matters

We appreciate Robert Katz’s concerns about the University of Minnesota’s budget and the health of the institution. Some of his specific points, however, require additional context or understanding.

Brian Burnett

Katz first attempts to compare change in state appropriations to changes in enrollment and tuition. Though state funding for the university increased by 14.2 percent from 2012 to 2016, changing a downward trend in previous years, it remains more than $50 million (or 8 percent) below the FY 2008 high point, unadjusted for inflation.

It’s important to break down the noted decrease in student enrollment during that same period. Total undergraduate enrollment increased by 149 students, accompanied by a decline in graduate and professional students of 645 and a decrease of non-degree students of 442. The decrease in graduate and professional students mirrors a nationwide trend as the economy has improved. Also, despite this decrease, the university serves 30 percent more graduate and professional students than it did in the year 2000.

The author also comments on serving Minnesota students. The Board of Regents, as part of its Progress Card, routinely monitors both the percent of incoming new and all currently enrolled students who are Minnesota high school graduates. Although Minnesota resident undergraduate enrollment has decreased 1.7 percent from 2012 to 2016, over that same period overall Minnesota high school graduates have decreased 3.3 percent. For fall 2016, the University of Minnesota was the only state university or college system to see an increase in undergraduate enrollments. The Minnesota State University system, private four-year institutions overall, and for-profit institutions all saw enrollment decreases last fall.

Priority on constraining MN resident tuition hikes

President Eric Kaler has made constraining Minnesota resident tuition increases a priority throughout his presidency. The average annual resident undergraduate tuition increase on the Twin Cities campus over the past five years has been 1.0 percent, and the average annual increase on the system campuses has been 0.4 percent. The average annual inflation rate over the same period has been 1.5 percent.

The author omits important context when talking about employment growth at the university. Total employee headcount from 2006 to 2016 grew by 6.1 percent. This increase parallels other growth in that same time period. Undergraduate enrollment grew 8.7 percent, for example, and the number of degrees granted increased 17.7 percent.

At the same time, the university worked hard to increase revenue from nonstate and nontuition sources. Sales, gifts, endowment earnings, and so on grew 54 percent. Dollars received through research grants increased more than 30 percent. Growth in the job categories highlighted by the author includes student advisers, lab technicians, extension service professionals, and many other valued employees performing or supporting the instruction, research and public services missions of the university.

Focus on the undergraduate experience

Katz also mentions a student survey that identified some challenges students had taking courses with faculty in one of our largest majors, economics. This field has had a rapid increase in the number of majors over the past decade. Most of the introductory-level instruction has been with faculty, and we are working to increase student contact with faculty throughout the major. The author’s point obscures the university’s extensive efforts to improve the experience for undergraduates over the past 15 to 20 years. This focus has led to four-year graduation rates tripling, the campus transforming into a fully residential experience, and the quality and impact of student services and advising constantly being reassessed for improvements.  

Thank you for the opportunity to provide context and additional information in response to the assertions raised in the author’s commentary. The University of Minnesota is one of the nation’s great public land grant and research universities and is proud of the work of our scholars and community in furthering discovery and learning to serve Minnesota, our nation and world community.

Brian Burnett is senior vice president for finance and operations at the University of Minnesota.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/22/2017 - 09:55 pm.

    Yes Contex matters

    Percentages don’t make a lot of impact when you can’t relate the context: Example: What is is it costing each student, what is the range/Std. Dev. how does that compare to previous years. Is there a graduation achievement trend line, how does it compare with the peer group. If there are no comparable or measurable metrics how is one suppose to grasp the context as good or bad? Increase in enrollment, OK in high end engineering, chemistry, research or liberal arts, compared to other big 10 schools? Tuition, same analysis, US ranking, etc. etc. When a 4 year degree at the U costs ~ $100K its nice to get some idea on the expected ROI relative too. .

Leave a Reply