Minnesota can afford a better University

BBBy the time the Minnesota Legislature adjourns this spring, the University will have been, in all likelihood, socked with the largest budget cut in its history. Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s recommended cuts to the University budget translate into approximately $200 million less than the University requested during the 2004-05 biennium. In an opinion piece published in the Daily last week, University President Robert Bruininks warned of “some very tough financial decisions” at the University due to projected reductions in state funding.

While the current budget crisis warrants significant cuts in state spending, continually underfunding the University will have serious consequences for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and the state’s economic development. In a larger sense, the disturbing trend in allocating fewer funds to the University reflects Minnesotans’ growing reluctance to fund public goods such as higher education. In spite of their history as a civic-minded populace, Minnesotans are becoming more interested in keeping money in their own pockets rather than the public realm.

Evidence of this trend is found by comparing state funding of the University to a measure of Minnesota’s wealth – gross state product. Between 1980 and 2000, real Minnesota GSP grew 80 percent. However, during the same time state funding of the University, in real terms, only grew 28 percent. Significantly, during the nation’s recessions at the beginning and end of the 1980s, funding of the University relative to Minnesota GSP hovered around 0.42 percent. However, by 2000 the University was permitted to only use funds equivalent to 0.32 percent of Minnesota GSP, compared to 0.44 percent in 1980. If state economic growth projections hold and $200 million is slashed from the University’s 2004-05 biennium, by 2005 University funding levels will fall to 0.24 percent of Minnesota GSP, a 50 percent drop relative to Minnesota GSP since 1980. The trend is clear: As state wealth has grown and continues to grow, the share of state wealth flowing to the University has sunk and will continue to sink.

As less state wealth has flowed to the University, the burden of funding higher education has increasingly fallen on middle-class families and students already burdened with record levels of consumer debt. In fact, since 1980 real levels of tuition at the University have risen 124 percent. If Pawlenty’s budget recommendations prevail at the capital, by 2005 tuition at the University will have increased by 204 percent since 1980.

While the direct beneficiaries of a college education should be expected to pay their fair share, the recognition of the key role the University plays in bettering our state has led past leaders to direct a larger share of wealth to the University and hold tuition down. However, as evidenced by the trend in University funding relative to our wealth, Minnesota is putting less and less value on public goods such as higher education.

While we deserve to keep our hard-earned money, the mantra of reducing taxes should not compromise the state’s mission to keep its only land-grant institution adequately funded. Minnesota can afford to maintain the levels of University funding and must if the state expects the diffuse benefits of a well-educated populace – including the ability to increase GSP year in and year out – to continue to materialize.