Bills show differingviews on education

by Chris Vetter

Although the Minnesota House and Senate both expect to consider funding bills for higher education this week, their respective proposals offer dramatically different approaches for students and universities. One bill focuses on giving universities as much money as possible, while the other focuses on increasing state funding of individual students through financial aid.
The House bill, which favors direct funding of the schools, passed unanimously out of the 34-member Education Committee on Friday with no amendments. It heads to the Ways and Means Committee this week.
The Senate version of the higher education bill, which centers on increasing access to financial aid, reaches the Senate floor today and should pass without any major changes.
The two bills differ most significantly in the appropriation of funds. Under the House bill, the University would receive a $168 million increase over its current budget; about 73 percent of its overall request of $230 million. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system would do even better, receiving 92 percent of its requested increase.
The House bill almost completely funds both major higher education systems, largely because of the fact that it spends about $20 million more than its companion in the Senate. In addition, House Speaker Phil Carruthers has made it a priority to fund the higher education systems above Gov. Arne Carlson’s recommendations.
Lawmakers in the Senate take a different approach by giving money directly to students rather than the schools. The Senate Higher Education Committee passed a bill that fully funds the Higher Education Services Office, which distributes financial aid to low- and moderate-income students. Although the office received only 21 percent of its $65 million requested increase in the House, the office received 92 percent of its request in the Senate.
The University did not fare well in the Senate committee. The $136.5 million increase is below Gov. Carlson’s recommendations for the University. The Senate bill made a strong statement that funding the financial aid office was more important than funding the higher education systems.
Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said there is one clear difference between the two bills. The Senate bill gives about $50 million more to the student aid office, taking about half the money from each of the two main state college systems.
“The question is, should we support students through grants or by direct support to the University and MnSCU?,” Marshak said.
While funding the University at a full $30 million less than the House, the Senate version also calls for performance measures, which require the University and MnSCU to prove they are improving certain aspects of their performance to obtain all of their funding. The measures are not spelled out in the bill, and it would be up to the University to decide what goals to set. The House version has no such performance measures.
While providing more money for financial aid, the Senate bill also makes it easier for students to obtain the aid and attend school. The bill would reduce the number of credits required to be considered a full-time student at MnSCU schools from 15 to 13 credits per quarter.
The wide difference in higher education philosophy and funding will be resolved in a conference committee when each bill passes out of its respective house. What emerges out of the conference committee will likely become law, because the funding levels for higher education are only slightly above Carlson’s proposed budget.
Both bills provide funding for new programs, like EdVest, which allows parents a college savings plan for their children, and money for Virtual U, which is a joint effort by all state higher education systems to have a central site on the World Wide Web that will eventually host online classes.