Higher ed: the luxurious non-luxury item

Minnesota must keep its higher education edge.

by Ian J Byrne

In 1849, the Minnesota Territory instituted a property tax to pay for public schools. Nine years later in 1858, when Minnesota became the 32nd state to enter the Union, the Constitution of Minnesota stipulated âÄúit is the duty of the Legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schoolsâÄù and to âÄúsecure a thorough and efficient systemâÄù through taxation and tapping other  revenue sources. With the $5 billion budget deficit, it seems that the state Legislature views Article 13, Section 1 of the state constitution as merely a suggestion nowadays.
Proposed cuts to the University of Minnesota, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and student financial aid will decrease higher education funding below 1998 levels, the largest higher education cuts in MinnesotaâÄôs history. It has become common practice over the past decade to cut education funding in the name of âÄúfiscal responsibility.âÄù As Marvin Taylor, a doctoral candidate at the University, eloquently pointed out in an April 7 Minnesota Daily letter to the editor, the University is becoming âÄúThe University in, not of, Minnesota.âÄù
The state has to find new revenue streams to continue funding higher education. If legislators can take the time to find revenue streams to help fund a new Vikings stadium âÄî  which I support âÄî then they should be able to find new revenue streams to help fund MnCSU.
The latest proposal to help fund a Vikings stadium calls for a 10 percent tax on sports memorabilia that will raise $17.6 million a year.
The theory is that the focused tax limits the cost burden of the stadium to only people who will most likely use it. If youâÄôre a pessimist you might say something like, âÄúWell, students drink alcohol, and they use the University, so letâÄôs increase the tax on alcohol [to] 10 percent.âÄù While the revenue collected from that tax increase would probably be enough to pave campus streets gold, the fact is that all Minnesotans benefit from a well-funded, accessible and high-quality higher education system.
According to 2008 census data, 31.5 percent of Minnesotans have a bachelorâÄôs degree. To compare, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin have 24.3, 26.9, 25.1 and 25.7 percent, respectively. This high level of education has had great benefits for the state.  
The College BoardâÄôs 2010 edition of the report âÄúEducation PaysâÄù details the individual and societal benefits of higher education attainment. They range from lower smoking and obesity rates, overall improved health, increased volunteerism and voter turnout, less spending on public assistance programs in the long run, increased job satisfaction, higher tax revenue and other economic benefits. LetâÄôs look at a few to see how Minnesota fares.
AmericaâÄôs Health Rankings is a complied list that ranks states based on a variety of factors that constitute a healthy lifestyle. Some include smoking rates, obesity rates, prevalence of violent crime and quality of health care. Minnesota ranked as the sixth healthiest state in the U.S. in 2010. Neighbors Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin ranked 14th, 16th, 20th and 18th, respectively.
Maybe you say, âÄúWell, Minnesota spends a lot on public health.âÄù Note the aforementioned rankings of MinnesotaâÄôs neighbors. Public health spending rankings for Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin are 36th, 27th, 19th and 48th, respectively. While Minnesota ranked the sixth healthiest state in the country, it ranked 43rd in public health spending.
In GallupâÄôs 2010 Well-Being Index, which factors in a life evaluation, emotional health and physical health, Minnesota ranked sixth in the country.
In 2009, Minnesota had the third highest volunteer rate in the country at 37.5 percent, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Minnesota has historically led the country in voter turnout. Minnesota has had the highest voter participation rate for eight consecutive election cycles dating back to 1996. In the 2010 midterm elections, 69.8 percent of eligible voters voted.
Minnesota has 21 Fortune 500 companies, despite being ranked 43rd by the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, as having one of the âÄúworst business tax climatesâÄù in the country. Minnesota has more Fortune 500 companies than Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin combined.
Now look, I realize itâÄôs not the stateâÄôs responsibility alone to ensure that institutions of higher education remain affordable, accessible and high quality. The UniversityâÄôs administration has its fair share of blame considering the business-as-usual attitude in terms of spending during the economic downturn and the fact that it continued to request money that simply was not there during the past decade.
The University must find a balance between keeping tuition costs at a reasonable level and providing a quality education. The sad thing, though, is that I donâÄôt even know what a reasonable amount would be, as my tuition has increased about $2,200 in the five years IâÄôve been at the University.
IâÄôm not accusing anyone of not believing in the glory of an educated populace. ItâÄôs just that higher education offers such luxurious benefits for all Minnesotans. Investments made years ago benefit the state today. We must continue investing for tomorrow. Cutting more than $400 million from the higher education appropriations bill as a tactic to help balance the budget is part of an overall losing strategy. We canâÄôt allow the Legislature to view higher education as a luxury item. Please, Minnesota, continue to help us, and we will continue to help you.