WASHINGTON — University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler is a veteran witness at state Legislature hearings in St. Paul.
He made his first appearance before Congress on Thursday, when a U.S. Senate panel called him to testify on the state of public spending on colleges across the country. His message: Minnesota has a spotty, but steadily improving, record on that front.
States’ per capita investment in higher education budgets fell 23 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2011, Kaler noted in his testimony, but Minnesota’s fell even faster, 48 percent.
Minnesota’s big spending drop is mostly due to two recessions, and especially the Great Recession.
Between 2004 and 2008, the state had increased annual spending for the University of Minnesota by nearly 30 percent, from $547 million to $709.1 million. But that funding collapsed in 2009, when, facing a $4.6 billion deficit, the state cut the school’s budget by almost $30 million right off the bat.
Funding dropped each of the next four years, bottoming out at $545.3 million in 2012 and 2013. During the depths of the economic downturn, the school cut costs, laid off employees, instituted a pay freeze and sent tuition up at least 7.3 percent annually for three years.
In 2013, the state Legislature gave the University a bit of a boost, increasing spending to $576 million this year and $591 million next year. Going forward, Kaler told the committee the school has “developed a partnership of shared accountability” with the state to control spending and cut costs for students.
Kaler is looking to cut $90 million in administrative spending over the next five years, he said, and the school is pumping more than $340 million into scholarships every year. The University has managed to freeze tuition increases for in-state undergraduates each of the last two years, though tuition has continued to rise for out-of-state and graduate students.
“This was a significant achievement, especially given state disinvestment, which, over the past decade, was among the steepest nationally,” Kaler told the committee.
More funding an ‘aspirational’ goal
After the hearing, Kaler said he’d like to see state funding levels back to where they were before the recession, even if the school’s share of the overall state budget has dropped.
“I think that’s an aspirational goal for us,” he said. “I think if we can demonstrate value for that continued investment, that it would make sense for the state to do that, recognizing that the state’s budget will be much larger than it was in 2008, so as a percentage, it would be less than we were, but getting back to that dollar amount I think is a good goal for us to have.”
The tuition freeze could stick around, he said. Next year is a budget year at the Legislature, and Kaler said administrators are putting together their budget request right now.
Kaler said that Congress has a role to play in college funding, as well. Lawmakers are considering how to rewrite the Higher Education Act, which sets federal higher education policy, though progress has been slow on that front. Kaler said lawmakers should use the opportunity to hold under-performing schools accountable.
“I think having schools who are underperforming not be eligible to take Pell grant students would have a pretty big influence on what those schools do,” he said. “Focusing on schools with good graduation rates and low student loan defaults as places to put more investment just makes good business sense.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry