Long before he ever got involved in politics, Gov. Mark Dayton wanted to be a doctor.
In the fall of 1968, Dayton sent out a slew of applications to the “best medical schools” in the nation, he said, including the University of Minnesota‘s.
Dayton never went to med school, of course. He got sidetracked protesting the Vietnam War and eventually became active in politics. But his enthusiasm for medicine never went away, something he made clear on Wednesday, when he rolled out a budget proposal that would pump $30 million over the next two years into the University of Minnesota Medical School. The goal: to restore the prominence the school enjoyed when Dayton applied to it more than 40 years ago. Over the last 20 years, the university’s ranking when it comes to funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has slipped from the 15th to 30th, hurting the school’s reputation and its ability to tap other research grants and funding.
Dayton’s proposal is just one of a slew of higher education-related bills proposed this session by lawmakers, who are looking to postsecondary education as a way to help address everything from gaps in health care between metro and outstate areas to a massive wave of baby boomer retirements.
“It’s the debt issue, the work-force issue, and it’s people’s sense that [higher education] is the mechanism for social mobility,” said Dayton’s higher education commissioner, Larry Pogemiller, who sensed a renewed focus on postsecondary education this year. “I think both Democrats and Republicans are saying, we’ve got to invest here. Families are investing heavily here and we have to help them.”
But there’s some disagreement over whether those investments should be focused on two- or four-year colleges, a not-insubstantial question since all of the funding requests are competing for a highly sought-after $1 billion budget surplus.
“I think everybody is going to be surprised,” Pogemiller said. “The resources are a bit tighter than it looks.”
Dayton envisions ‘The Brain Power State’
On top of $30 million for the medical school this biennium, Dayton wants the university and the Legislature to make a verbal commitment to invest another $50 million in the school each biennium for the next decade.
The funding would pay for 50 research faculty members who would form “medical discovery teams” that would specialize in studying areas that have a wide reach, like diabetes and cancer. Medical School Dean Brooks Jackson said the goal is for their work to move the medical school from 30th in the NIH rankings up to 20th in just five years. Among public medical schools, Minnesota currently ranks 12th.
“If we can demonstrate success with this model … then I think we will come back to the state and ask for more money and get literally in the top five or 10,” Jackson said.
The school’s rankings started slipping after 1995, when a federal grand jury indicted Dr. John Najarian, a renowned transplant surgeon, on charges of fraud, theft and tax evasion. The school paid $32 million in fines, and the NIH placed severe restrictions on the university’s ability to use research money. As a result, both current and former medical school leaders say, the program lost 90 top faculty members between 1995 and 2001.
In addition to restoring the medical school, Dayton sees the proposal as having immeasurable economic benefits across the state. It would attract the top researchers and medical professionals to live and stay in Minnesota, he said, which would in turn benefit the state’s already successful medical device industry. It will also help address the expected shortage of doctors the state will face in the coming decades. “It’s going back to what Governor Perpich called ‘The Brain Power State,’ ” Dayton said.
Dayton also hinted he will make additional investments in higher education in his budget, which will be fully unveiled next week. That will include bonding dollars for infrastructure improvements on college campuses across the state. “The university is underfunded, as is the [Minnesota State Colleges and Universities] system,” Dayton said. “We need to address that long term.”
Legislators eyeing two-year schools, outstate programs
But some Senate Democrats, who control the upper chamber, want the focus to be more on the state’s two-year institutions. One of their first bills this session would provide free tuition for certain students at the state’s community and technical colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) system. Ideally, that would cut down on the high costs of college education and get more students into the vocational and technical training that can lead quickly to jobs, said DFL Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, the author of the bill. President Barack Obama used his State of the Union speech Tuesday night to pitch a similar plan to make community college free for some students.
The plan will likely cost somewhere between $100 and $150 million over the next two years, but Republican House Higher Education Policy and Finance Chairman Bud Nornes said he’s concerned about the cost and the mechanics of the proposal.
“I know certain career paths that need a shot in the arm, but it’s not as simple as it sounds,” Nornes said. “I also personally feel to get a good education you have to have a little investment in it yourself. Free education might not be the best solution.”
Nornes is generally supportive of some kind of a plan to deal with the doctor shortage in the state, but he’d like to see more balance in Dayton’s proposal. In particular, he’d like to explore putting investment into agriculture programs on University of Minnesota campuses across the state. “That’s also an important part of our economy and we don’t want that to slip,” he said.
DFL senators also want to offer loan college forgiveness to medical professionals who agree to work in greater Minnesota or other underserved communities in the state, an idea Dayton says he supports.
Colleges and universities seek more funding
The Senate’s community college proposal has also received some pushback from University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, who said four-year colleges also have job-training programs for students. Instead, Kaler would like to see nearly $130 million put into the university next biennium to keep the cost of college low for students and — sensing a renewed focus on rural parts of the state — invest in university programs in Greater Minnesota.
In the university’s budget proposal, Kaler pitched a plan to extend a tuition freeze for undergraduate students for two more years. He would also like to add all graduate students to the freeze, for a total cost of about $65 million for the biennium. The university predicts tuition would go up 3 percent for undergraduates without the freeze.
But Senate Higher Education Finance Chairwoman Terri Bonoff said she’s never been a fan of simply freezing tuition for college campuses. “I will do all I can to invest in the university and make sure they remain a premier institution, but how they handle their tuition is up to them,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
Bonoff would also like to revisit a proposal that ties 5 percent of the University of Minnesota’s funding to its meeting performance goals, like cutting administrative costs and increasing graduation rates for low-income students. “We will have to go back and say, ‘What is our performance metric for funding for the next two years?’” Bonoff said. “It’s about employing best practices to move the dial on the things we know make a difference.”
In addition to a tuition freeze, the university wants $35 million for health care, which would help open a handful of clinics in greater Minnesota and other underserved communities. The university also wants funds to study and help improve water quality from mine discharges in northern Minnesota.
MNSCU is going a different route with its request: The system plans to ask for $142 million from the state over the next two years to cover increasing inflationary and personnel costs. That will help avoid a tuition increase for the system’s 400,000 students, according to budget documents, as well as bring the division between state and student costs closer to a 50:50 split.
“Inflationary increases must be addressed to keep education at the lowest possible cost for the students who often need financial assistance the most,” reads a MNSCU budget proposal. “State funds are not being requested to fund new initiatives. We will fund new investments internally by prioritization based on the needs of the students, employers and communities.”