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MSCU, Bruininks respond to Pawlenty

While Minnesota’s public colleges and universities brace themselves for Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget next week, they got glimpses of his priorities in his recent state of the state address.

While Minnesota’s public colleges and universities brace themselves for Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget next week, they got glimpses of his priorities in his recent state of the state address.

Pawlenty called upon the colleges and universities “to become more efficient and less focused on geography and bricks and mortar,” and to “move more aggressively to deliver more of their courses online.” He acknowledged that “online courses won’t replace some needed face-to-face education and hands-on experience,” but he challenged the Minnesota’s state college and university system to deliver 25 percent of its credits online by 2015.

Pawlenty also called upon the state’s higher ed institutions to impose a firm cap on tuition increases so that “necessary changes” the state will make this year do not “fall too heavily on students and their families.”

Without elaboration from the governor, it’s a safe bet that “necessary changes” means cutbacks in state support given the budget crisis that is forecast. Already, Pawlenty has “unallotted” $20 million in state funding for this fiscal year for the University of Minnesota and another $20 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. In other words the institutions won’t get $40 million of the funding that had been granted earlier and built into their budgets.

Now you have the backdrop. Here’s the reaction to the governor’s state of the state:

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (from Nancy Conner, director of publications and media relations):

“We’re happy to accept the governor’s challenge for increasing online education. This is an important area of growth for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.  We are committed to offering high-quality education, no matter how it is delivered — in the classroom or online. Students are demanding more online courses, so that is where we are seeing dramatic growth.

“The system has invested in the technology to support online learning, which grew 120 percent between 2005 and 2008. In the last fiscal year, more than 66,000 students took online courses. Ultimately, expanding online education will help us better meet students’ needs and increase access to higher education in Minnesota.

“As for the proposed tuition cap, it is difficult to respond without details from the governor. The system’s Board of Trustees has been committed to its mission of access and opportunity and the goal of keeping tuition as low as possible. Average tuition and fees this year are about $4,850.

“The system kept increases to 3.6 percent last year and 2.8 percent this year.  For the coming year, the Board of Trustees has set a goal of holding down tuition increases to 2 percent for the community and technical colleges and 3 percent for the state universities. But the system has only two sources of revenue — state support and tuition.

“Ultimately the tuition rate will depend on what happens at the Legislature.”

University of Minnesota (excerpts from a statement by President Robert Bruininks):

“I understand the need for the University of Minnesota to be part of the solution to the current state budget shortfall. Our faculty, staff and students are well aware of the challenges facing Minnesota. We also understand that quality education is a key to everyone’s future prosperity.

“Higher education is economic stimulus. The jobs created as a result of university research and entrepreneurial activity, and the strengthened human capital that results from the 14,000 degrees we award each year are Minnesota’s homegrown economic engine. As I have stated on several occasions — the path out of Minnesota’s current crisis, and a return to a vibrant and growth-oriented economy, lies directly through the classrooms, laboratories, libraries and halls of our great educational institutions.

“Ensuring an affordable, high-quality education and the ability of students to graduate in a timely manner have been top priorities for the U of M in recent years. Despite deep state budget reductions, the university has made education more affordable through new tuition reforms and extraordinary increases in scholarship support. State-mandated tuition caps in the face of the significant budget cuts we expect the governor to recommend later this month will severely compromise the university’s ability to educate our more than 60,000 students and deliver on our research mission which attracts nearly $700 million in outside funding each year.

“We appreciate the governor’s recognition of our work in the area of online learning. Thousands of University of Minnesota students already have a significant online component as part of their collegiate experience. We will continue to increase such opportunities for our students. Our digital campus, www.digitalcampus.umn.edu unveiled late last year, is a significant step forward in that effort.

“Despite the enormity of the state’s fiscal challenges, the university looks forward to working with legislators and the governor to preserve and strengthen our state’s economic and educational climate. We urge policymakers to provide the U and other state-supported agencies with maximum flexibility in addressing these severe challenges.”