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State budget: Invest in critical higher education

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The bottom line is Minnesota needs to keep investing in higher education.

The following is an editorial from the Mankato Free Press.

The supplemental budget request by the Minnesota State university system amounts to maintaining infrastructure it has, upgrading 20-year old technology and investing for the future while keeping tuition frozen or very low.

That’s not an unreasonable request for Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The system requested $130 million in bonding money to keep the lights on and the roofs from leaking. That’s just to pay for things that have been on the system’s “deferred maintenance list.” Minnesota State University alone has a deferred maintenance backlog of $80 million in needed upgrades. South Central College has a backlog of $10 million in projects and still needs roof repair money. They get water in the building when it rains.

Tight budgets have caused Minnesota State University to put roof replacement on the Memorial Library into phases. The university needs to bring a fuel tank insert into compliance with MPCA regulations. There are dozens of other projects.

While each of the institutions have emergency reserves to replace, for example, air conditioning systems when they go out (as was the case at SCC recently), they need funds to upgrade buildings so they can reduce their maintenance costs.

Both schools are impacted by a systemwide central computer system that is 20 years old, and uses five computer languages including COBOL, a language that is obsolete.

The system is also asking for $95 million for new building projects, including $6.5 million for MSU to renovate spaces vacated when the new clinical sciences building opened. Three buildings would be renovated to create more classroom space and renovate and repurpose other space.

The $21 million technology upgrade request for the whole system seems most critical. Minnesota State’s old system supports some 400,000 students, faculty and staff. These kinds of systems cannot be upgraded overnight and will likely take seven to 10 years. They also cannot be done on an emergency basis.

The system appears to be working on borrowed time. We only need to look at other state technology systems like MNLARS and MNsure to see what havoc can be created if technology is not done right and in a timely manner.

Finally, the system is asking for another $10 million in supplemental funding to structurally balance its budgets ($900,000 for MSU and $200,000 for SCC) and to work toward retention of students and other initiatives. A 10 percent increase in retention would go a long way to solving the system’s financial problems as it faces declining enrollments.

With projections that 75 percent of Minnesota’s workforce will need some form of higher education in the future, the mission of the Minnesota State system will be critical to Minnesota’s future economic growth.

With tuition costs at $8,000 per year for universities and $5,000 per year for community colleges, the system also remains the most accessible to those from lower income families and diverse communities.

The bottom line is Minnesota needs to keep investing in higher education. There may be some room to trim around the edges of its budget request, but overall the proposal from the Minnesota State system appears to be a well-reasoned, conservative budget proposal. We urge Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature to approve this sound investment in Minnesota’s future.

Republished with permission.

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