In the 1880s, Minnesotans enjoyed little in the way of comforts we take for granted today. Lacking indoor plumbing, farm families relied on outhouses. Lacking ready transportation, workers walked to factory jobs in the Twin Cities.
Still, the 32nd state was itching to make a place for itself in the venerable ranks of the highly educated. And so, near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, workers laid red brick and sandstone in 1886 for a stately Queen Anne mode building known today as Eddy Hall.
That University of Minnesota building marked the beginning of a commitment to higher education that grew through the decades, brick by brick and professor by professor. As a result, more than 250,000 students go to classes today in 41 public colleges and universities statewide.
Now, though, that proud commitment is in jeopardy. State support is declining. Tuition is skyrocketing. And state colleges and universities are facing steep cutbacks, even as thousands of recently laid-off workers turn to them for new skills.
‘A serious retreat’
“What’s happened to the funding of higher education in Minnesota is a very great threat to our state and its future — and it’s a serious retreat from what used to be the case in Minnesota,” said David Lebedoff, a Minneapolis lawyer and author who formerly chaired the U of M’s Board of Regents.
“If you want to put it in dollars and cents — nothing, nothing is more important to the economy of this state than high-quality higher education that is accessible to the people of this state,” he said.
That is classic Minnesota thinking.
But next fall, for the first time in Minnesota history, the university will draw less in state support than it collects in tuition. And soon, the state will contribute less than the university raises from other private sources.
Tuition is rising faster in Minnesota than in most other states. It has doubled since 1999 at the U of M.
Spending set to fall sharply
Meanwhile, state spending for higher education has stuck flat for years in some areas and dropped by double digits in others. Now it is set to fall sharply as the governor and the Legislature wrestle through the current financial crisis.
“We have resigned ourselves to the fact that we are going to get cut — it’s just a matter of how much,” said Graeme Allen, government relations director for the Minnesota State University Student Association.
These trends are triggering alarm far beyond campus classrooms.
“I’m worried,” said former Gov. Al Quie, a Republican.
Minnesotans are as committed as ever to the value of education, Quie insisted. Still, he said, “I worry about how we will find the means to pay for it.”
Technology, attitudes changing
The crisis shaking higher education runs deeper than the current recession. Technology and shifting attitudes are driving profound change in the institutions that signified so much vision and ambition 150 years ago.
Then, America built institutions based on respect for rules and obligations telling us what to do and how to do it, David Brooks noted in a recent New York Times column. The attitude was “we are not defined by what we ask of life (but) by what life asks of us.”
Now, though, institutional thinking is giving way to modern culture with its demands for personal happiness and self-discovery.
“Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity,” Brooks said.
His view is that the institutions are worth preserving nonetheless because “they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.”
Almost weekly, though, we see commentary to the contrary. Graduate education in America is akin to automaking in Detroit, Mark C. Taylor argued last month in a widely circulated Times opinion piece. Others even predict that large universities — heaven help them — will go the way of the nation’s newspapers.
In Minnesota, though, dozens of people across the political spectrum told me that maintaining our best institutions of higher education is critical to the state’s economic future and cultural identity.
Economists have stressed for years that Minnesota’s well-being depends on its productivity, said Katherine Blauvelt, a policy analyst for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Minnesota Budget Project.
“They always go straight to higher education,” Blauvelt said. “But there’s an odd disconnect. Clearly higher education is the number one priority in this economy for successful retraining and for the state’s future, but the dollars have just been draining out of the system.”
After the state lost nearly 75,000 jobs in 2008, enrollment jumped 14 percent this January in the Minnesota State College and University System. At the same time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced a $40 million cut in this year’s funding for the MNSCU system and the U of M in order to help offset plummeting state revenues.
Stimulus is only one-time funding
Now the systems face deeper cuts in the budgets Pawlenty and the Legislature are crafting for future years. Federal stimulus dollars will close part of the gap. That is one-time funding though. It helps today, but not tomorrow.
Here are some parameters of the long-term problem, according to Blauvelt’s calculations:
• State higher-education funding per full-time student dropped by 28 percent from 2000 to 2007 fiscal years.
• State general fund spending has dropped 16 percent since 2000.
• Compared with other states, Minnesota is below average in the funding and above average in the cost of attending public institutions.
Debate over higher education’s plight begins with questions of where to place the blame.
Tough love for institutions
Even some Democrats point to the institutions themselves.
“Education is as important as ever, but the models we are using are economically unsustainable,” said Joe Graba, a former DFL state legislator with a résumé in education that is too long to print here. Most recently he was dean of Hamline University’s Graduate School of Education. And currently he is a senior policy fellow at Education|Evolving, a think tank he co-founded.
“It angers a lot of people when I say that,” Graba said. “But people who work every day in the system understand the difficulties we are having sustaining the traditional models.”
While the rest of the economy has exploited technology to improve productivity, education remains labor intensive. Indeed, small class sizes are a mark of quality.
“One of the dilemmas in education at all levels is that we define quality as the reverse of productivity improvement,” Graba said.
Along with faculty and staff salaries come skyrocketing health-care costs and other budget-busting expenses.
The upshot is that costs outpaced inflation for many years, Graba said, and higher-education budgets set trajectories the taxpayers simply could not afford to follow.
Productivity is improving
To be sure, Minnesota’s universities and colleges are improving productivity faster than their counterparts in some other states.
“The university’s productivity and impact are growing; they are not contracting,” U of M President Robert Bruininks testified before the state senate’s Higher Education Budget Division.
Operating on flat budgets, the university has increased enrollment, graduation rates and retention. And it has granted thousand of degrees “that are tied to the most important parts of Minnesota’s economy and quality of life . . . science, technology, engineering, medicine and many, many other fields,” he said.
“We’ve closed a campus — the only place in the Upper Midwest to close a campus,” Bruininks testified. (The former agricultural technical college in Waseca is now a prison.)
The statewide systems have slashed extras, too. Campus repairs were put off this year at North Hennepin Community College to the point that a building inspector threatened to shut down the only kitchen where students could buy hot lunches. College President Ann Wynia told the Senate panel she was fighting to save a veterans’ service center and a five-person security force on the campus where crime has been a serious threat.
They also have embraced online learning. But, done right, classes offered via the Internet can be more labor intensive than traditional classes. The main savings are realized by students who no longer need to drive to campus and pay for parking, day care and other expenses.
Graba is sympathetic. But he’s not backing off his call for radical change.
“We organize school around teaching, not around learning, and we will never realize the benefits of digital technologies until we switch that and organize it around learning,” he said.
For example, we require most students to take precisely the same length of time to learn whatever a course offers, even though some may learn faster than others.
“If we took these kids, or even adults, and asked them to run a foot race, nobody would say they should take exactly the same amount of time to run a quarter mile,” Graba said. “We’ve got to get away from that old model.”
Tough love, part two
More tough love came from Lebedoff, the former U of M regent. The state is running more campuses than it can afford because the Legislature is loath to close any community’s cherished college, he said.
“Everything becomes mediocre if we are doing too many things at once,” Lebedoff said. “We should have a commission that studies those institutions and decides which are best serving the state — give them maybe more money, but close others.”
Cutting budgets across the board without making such tough choices jeopardizes quality to the point the state could lose all-important faculty talent, he said.
“The university has been very successful at raising money, but we cannot compete in faculty pay with some of the small colleges in the East that have huge endowments,” Lebedoff warned. “If we really start slipping, those small colleges will raid our faculty — and once they go, others will go. It’s a downward spiral and it’s very, very serious.”
Blame the politicians
Pawlenty’s political reputation rests on his campaign pledge that he would never raise taxes. There is no question that the spending squeeze is tighter as a result. The Legislature tested Pawlenty’s resolve again last week with a $1 billion tax increase which he promptly vetoed.
Meanwhile, critics blame Pawlenty, at least in part, for higher education’s crisis.
Allen of the state university student association compares today’s no-tax mentality with the “Minnesota Miracle” of the 1970s when the state reaffirmed its commitment to public education by taking over most K-12 spending and boosting higher education too.
“One can argue whether that was right or wrong, but at least education got a significant increase and we went from the middle of the pack to one of the national leaders in per-capita investment in education,” Allen said.
Now students fear that commitment is history, he said, and they are caught on the wrong side of history with tuition loads that are forcing some out of college and burdening others with massive debt.
From the governor’s office to legislative hearing rooms, politicians decry the tuition spurts. But critics call that political gamesmanship.
Diffusing the political pain
The budget ax fell harder on higher education than on some other state spending areas precisely because the institutions had other funding options such as raising tuition, said Graba, the former legislator.
“The Legislature doesn’t have to vote to raise the tuition,” Graba said. “It simply votes to not fund the requests of the various systems, and then those systems are forced into raising the tuition. It’s a way of diffusing the political pain. There is no question about that.”
Not everyone sees tuition hikes as wrongheaded, at least at some level.
“I have no problem with students picking up a larger share over time of the cost of education,” said Mitch Pearlstein, president and founder of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.
“The return on a college education is strong and getting stronger,” he said.
But Pearlstein does take issue with Pawlenty’s recent move to shield K-12 education from the budget ax, thereby diverting a heavier blow to colleges and universities.
Research shows that money pumped into K-12 classrooms “doesn’t necessarily lead to kids learning more,” Pearlstein said, partly because teachers are rewarded on the basis of seniority and union contracts rather than student achievement.
But higher education funding can help “attract world class scholars … who bring in large research grants,” he said.
“The folks brought in by these additional dollars stick around here and start businesses and the like,” he said.
Blame a perception gap
As higher education funding has been centralized in St. Paul over the years, many Minnesotans have lost a sense of direct responsibility for their colleges and universities, said Quie, the former governor.
Like an urban dweller at a window who sees a stranger robbed on the streets, they “turn away and do nothing because they think someone else is calling the authorities,” he said.
The U of M, in particular, has become more estranged from state residents, John Finnegan Jr., dean of the university’s School of Public Health, said at a Humphrey Institute forum this month.
After World War II, when federal research dollars began to flow into the higher education system, “that changed the complexion of the universities in a major way,” he said. It put them in position to tackle basic science research, which was vital to innovation but financially risky for private companies.
“We became essentially the research and development centers for the economy of this nation, for the corporate structures of this nation,” he said. “If we hadn’t had universities we would have invented them. But the downside is that it moved away from what many land-grant universities were founded to do and that was to support and build the culture, the economy and so forth of the individual states in which they resided.”
Now, universities across the country are struggling to reconnect with their communities at the levels where funding decisions are made, he said.
As a reporter, I’ve had enough of slavish devotion to the kind of balance that leaves readers nowhere. We journalists have done too many on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand stories. In this case, though, the informed observations lead to the conclusion that that all sides truly have to work harder.
For starters, Minnesota residents clearly need to stop playing the role of Gov. Quie’s detached observer at the window. Expecting someone else to call authorities on this crisis isn’t working. If the state cares about its longstanding traditions, now is the time to make that call.
At the Capitol, Minnesota needs less polarization and more mutual problem-solving.
One side argues, “Higher education is our crown jewel, the vital engine for our economy. Hands off!”
The other side: “Times are tough. No more taxes. Chop, chop, chop!”
If a body needed to lose seven pounds, you wouldn’t take it by chopping off the head, said Angela Eilers, research and policy director for St. Paul-based Growth & Justice.
“The thoughtful approach might be liposuction,” she said.
But the ax seems to fall indiscriminately.
“Both sides are using these broad strokes,” she said.
After several years of chopping down the higher education budget during lean times then rebuilding it during fatter years, someone should form a commission to find a more stable funding model, said Eilers and others. Call it The Liposuction Group, if you will.
The University of Minnesota has vast expertise to bring to the table.
“We’ve got economic tools and research tools at one end of University Avenue that could help solve the problems at the other end of University Avenue,” Eilers said.
“The state should ask, ‘If you guys are great researchers and economists and analysts, could we figure this out together?’ “
Sharon Schmickle covers science, international affairs and other subjects for MinnPost.