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Minnesota State has two big needs. It’s probably only going to get enough money from the Legislature to address one of them.

Minnesota State is in the midst of a big project to upgrade its technological infrastructure. It also needs money to keep the lights on.

State Sen. Paul Anderson, R- Plymouth, chair of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, as state Sen. Warren Limmer looks on.
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is approaching the halfway point in what will likely be a decade-long project to replace the technological infrastructure underlying all its most important activities — from campus finances and human resources to student services spanning application to graduation.

After about four years of planning, it’s time to find a vendor that can bring the system’s 37 colleges and universities into the 21st century. ISRS Next Generation, or NextGen, is estimated to cost at least $150 million and will rely heavily on state investment. And that’s where Minnesota State could hit a snag.

Lawmakers say they recognize the importance of such a project. “We heard loud and clear from everyone from the chancellor to all their testimony that this is a critical need,” Sen. Paul Anderson, R- Plymouth, chair of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, told MinnPost. “Yes, they need operations and management funding. They need other things. We provide that. But in the end, this is their No. 1 need.”

But the Legislature hasn’t funded it — at least, not at the level Minnesota State had hoped.

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Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the House Higher Education Committee, told MinnPost her priority this year is allocating enough general operations funding to prevent a rise in tuition.

“It’s a very important project for Minnesota State. They need that money to be able to do that project. If it doesn’t [get it], it’ll come out of the schools’ operating budgets,” Bernardy said. “As I understand, they’re going to do it regardless.”

An upgraded system to customize student experience

Planning for NextGen began in 2015. The current system, known as ISRS (Integrated Statewide Record System), is 20 years old, predating iPhones, social media, and other technologies that not only work better but drastically shifted expectations around design and user experience.

Minnesota State leaders told lawmakers ISRS has reached the end of its life and that continuing to operate with such a relic means their campuses can’t compete with their peers with better data systems.

It’s a massive project requiring regular updates to the Board of Trustees, whose members ask how the system will improve student outcomes, as well as experience, or whether the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s report on what went wrong with MNLARS, the state’s vehicle registration system that has cost more than $100 million and nine years to develop, offered any insight into how they could avoid similar mistakes.

State Rep. Connie Bernardy
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
State Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the House Higher Education Committee, states her priority this year is allocating enough general operations funding to prevent a rise in tuition.
NextGen would be an upgrade and it could be part of a broader effort by Minnesota State to figure out how to adjust to fit the state’s changing demographics and workforce needs. There is a perplexing challenge Minnesota State must confront, Chancellor Devinder Malholtra said during a Trustees committee meeting in January. Minnesota State has to make room for more students while offering those students more personal educational experiences. “Technology helps us to resolve that inherent conflict in that challenge,” he said, according to meeting minutes.

One area that the NextGen would have the capacity to offer that individualized experience is through advising. The new system could enable students to create plans and track their progress toward graduation.

By leaving the technical aspects up to technology, students’ advisers could spend more time answering “richer questions,” Winona State University President Scott Olson told state Senators in January. “The proposal is to enrich and enhance our technology to allow, among many other things, for that kind of engaged advising that’ll make a difference in the life of students,” he said.

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A project trying to move forward

When Minnesota State leaders first approached the Legislature about NextGen during the 2017 budget session, they asked the state to put up half the cost. A copy of the presentation outlining that request says that would have required $12.5 million each year, or $25 million per budget cycle. They walked away with just $4 million per year.

This year, Minnesota State sought $37 million more, bringing the state’s share to $45 million per budget cycle. It’s part of a request this session totaling $246 million. But none of the competing budget proposals at the Capitol this session would fully fund the NextGen request, and they each contain trade-offs.

The Senate higher education omnibus bill proposes $47 million in new spending for Minnesota State, with $22 million of that going toward the NextGen project. Adding it to base funding provided in the 2017 budget brings the annual state contribution to $15 million for the project.

The House budget includes $159 million in new funding for Minnesota State, but just $10 million of that is for the project. Combined with the $8 million in already planned funding for NextGen for the biennium, that would mean the state contributes $9 million per year to the project.

So, in one scenario, Minnesota State gets two-thirds of its NextGen request but a fraction of the funding it asked for to cover operations, student grants, and new programs to address the state’s workforce shortage.

In another, students benefit from a tuition freeze but Minnesota State wouldn’t have what its leaders say they need to keep the project on track.

Following the disappointing outcome in 2017, a report to the Board of Trustees highlighted the risk of insufficient state funding, which could hinder Minnesota State’s ability to sign any long-term contract with a vendor when the time comes.

Now it has. The team in charge of writing up the request for proposals (RFP) is set to publish it soon, Ramon Padilla, vice chancellor for information technology services, told the Senate Higher Education Committee in January. “We need a complete finance plan before we go live with RFPs,” he said. “June 2019 is a critical target for us.”

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Legislators’ competing priorities

The two scenarios offered by legislators reflect their differing perspectives on how to spend new money. Republicans and DFLers have both budgeted increases for Minnesota State for the next two years.

Anderson said he sees the value of investing in NextGen because it’s the kind of purchase that would have positive ripple effects that align with his overarching goal to hold the state’s two public higher education systems accountable for meeting student needs while staying affordable.

“As someone who is from business and has operated in that, there are many things you can invest in that will be a great return on investment and help reduce costs, become more efficient,” he said. “Think of the ability from all their campuses to be able to communicate better, be more efficient. That’s a game changer.”

Bernardy contends that a $47 million increase, as Republicans propose, short-changes Minnesota State’s operating budget, which impacts opportunities for students and leads to higher tuition and more student debt.

“Bottom line, they need the money,” Bernardy told MinnPost. “We’re giving historic investment in higher education.”

Minnesota State leaders weren’t available to comment. But in a statement to MinnPost, Doug Anderson, a spokesperson, said they’re working with lawmakers on the budget: “We appreciate the support this project has received from Governor Walz as well as the legislature, and we will continue to work with the throughout the remainder of the session towards a final budget that will meet the needs of our students, ensure access and affordability of higher education, and ensure the financial programmatic sustainability of our colleges and universities.”