Avoid false dichotomy when funding MnSCU

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of Monday editorials that examine the state budget surplus.
Prosperity has its own paradoxical challenges. In Minnesota, the challenge before the House and Senate is deciding how to spend this year’s $1.3 billion state surplus. Minnesota’s economic strength lies in producing new jobs at a rate slightly higher than the rest of the nation. To date, this growth has mainly been in the service and trade sectors, fueled by an unusually strong economy. But the economic cycle has its ups and downs. Recession will come again, and legislators should focus on honing the competitive edge that brought today’s boom times. The most important such edge is the state’s highly educated workforce.
Today’s robust state economy creates a rising demand for highly educated students. Since 1995, state funding for higher education in Minnesota has increased just ahead of inflation. The surplus affords lawmakers the opportunity to strengthen education without cutting into other important initiatives. To that end, administrators of the educational institutions statewide have already come up with numerous proposals for improving the competitiveness, quality and accountability of their curriculum. This is no less true at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system than at the newly Yudof-enhanced University.
Aiming to increase its contribution to Minnesota’s economic competitiveness and quality of life for its citizens, MnSCU is in the midst of a three-year strategy targeting six major areas. This involves increasing the schools’ academic accountability, improving career preparation, adding a skill-based credit transfer option, embracing technology as a core education component, aligning programs and services with state needs and strengthening the system’s K-12 partnership. For this, MnSCU administrators requested a 14 percent increase over its current level of state funding for the next two years. The largest part of their $1.03 billion request would improve their electronic education resources.
The state colleges system offers more than 1,200 programs to about 150,000 students statewide. More than 55 percent of teachers educated in Minnesota come from MnSCU. Since its reorganization in 1995, the system has helped Minnesota rank above the national average in educational attainment at the high school, associate degree and baccalaureate level. It is already a system of great utility to the state. The system’s proposed Electronic Academy would broaden MnSCU’s reach, making educational opportunities more accessible to the state’s workers. More than anything else, the skills of Minnesota’s workers will determine the duration and severity of the next recession and the strength of the recovery that will follow.
Legislators should invest in public and private research and capitalization, which will strengthen state businesses. They should begin building Twin Cities commuter transit and strengthen the state’s basic infrastructure. Lawmakers must also fund the education programs that give state workers new skills. They must finally resist the temptation to pit these priorities against each other and the University against MnSCU. The surplus can be the seed of continuing prosperity, but only if lawmakers act wisely.