Slouching toward ‘world-class’

Increases in student tuition have provided the investment despite broad public benefits.

Editorial board

 

In 2005, the University of Minnesota’s administration announced a strategic positioning plan centered on becoming one of the top-three public research institutions in the world by 2015. The plan and the goal were both approved by the Board of Regents approximately a month later. The administration highlighted several key strategies to achieve the 10-year goal, including attracting the best students, the best faculty and promoting a culture of excellence.

The reality is that each of these strategies requires a significant level of investment to achieve. Over the past eight years, state funding for the University climbed from about $550 million in 2005 to about $700 million in 2008 then dropped off again to the original mark by 2012, despite system-wide growth in enrollment and research spending. However, in-state tuition has increased from $3,570 to $5,825 per semester, not including additional fees.

These funding patterns mirror those found at other top public research institutions with which the University is in competition in a market-like system: for students, faculty and research funding. Despite former Gov. Arne Carlson’s comparisons with elected official’s salaries in a March 12 blog post, University President Eric Kaler’s salary is below those of the presidents of other top public institutions, including the University of California system’s current president, Mark Yudof,  who served as president of the University of Minnesota from 1997-2002. To attract and retain top talent in the administration — despite the Wall Street Journal’s focus on only the University would lead readers to believe — and in the faculty, such compensation is necessary in the existing market. Whether this should correlate with public employee salary caps is another debate.

The conclusion that students are paying more as the state divests is hardly a revelation, but what is often overlooked is what benefits students now receive as a result of their collective investment.

In The Center for Measuring University Performance’s 2006 annual report, The Top American Research Universities, the University had seven of nine measures in the top 25, essentially tied with peer institutions like University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Washington. The 2011 annual report stated the University only had six measures in the top 25, falling slightly behind previous peers. However, the total research expenditures climbed in rank from 15th to ninth, with a net increase of more than $200 million. Overall, it seems that the University’s rank among its peers has been nearly stagnant. Peer institutions have faced similar cutbacks in state funding and have also increased tuition rates.

Scholarship indicates that increased research results in economic growth and, therefore, increased tax revenues. Thus, there exists substantial incentive for states to invest in their universities to grow research programs. However, the immediate benefits to students seem somewhat further removed, considering universal increases in tuition rates relative to state funding.

Perhaps the economic growth generated as a result of research growth will provide students a job later in life, but the traditional dichotomy between research and teaching puts the two at odds — stating that professors either conduct research or educate students. What this view fails to account for is that research often is a means for teaching. A research institution trains new researchers, both as graduate students and, more recently, as undergraduates.

Regardless of research rankings, the culture at the University has changed: More students are living near campus and creating a more engaged community. However, as noted in previous editorials, even this comes with an additional cost to students and further increasing student debt.

While students do benefit from increased research programs, it hardly justifies bearing such a large portion of the financial burden required to achieve these goals. These goals are for the public good and deserve to be increasingly financed by the general public and not as much by students. This is the comparative advantage in the marketplace of top public institutions that Minnesota can contribute to the current climate of state budget austerity.