College funding: no compromise yet

by Chris Vetter

Despite hopes that the higher education funding bill would be well on its way to the governor by the end of this week, the University is still at least a few days away from learning its 1998-99 funding level.
The higher education conference committee met for another 10 hours Thursday, but members were unable to finish their compromise bill. Thursday marked the fifth day of meetings between the House and Senate conferences.
Committee members will take the next few days off and will meet again Monday.
“I see light at the end of the tunnel as far as the language goes,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls. However, the committee did not have any new funding proposals throughout the day’s meeting.
Despite a letter from Gov. Arne Carlson on Wednesday that said he supported the House’s position on financial aid funding, senators on the committee are still reluctant to change their position. The Senate favors giving more funding to student aid than to the schools.
Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls, said the Senate members will attempt to give as much aid to low-income students as possible.
“We have taken that (letter) into consideration,” Larson said. “But it has always been the Senate’s position to give to the students rather than to the institutions. Our goal is to make it possible for more students to go to a higher education system, and low-income students need the most help.”
Larson added that giving money to the students will force the schools to be more competitive and improve their schools to attract students.
Although the committee steered away from discussing funding, it finished all the language in the bill that was unrelated to money.
The most significant language changes involve easing credit transfers from one school to another — including the University. Many members said they wanted a system in place by the 1998-99 school year, when the University switches from quarters to semesters.
Many legislators criticized the Minnesota State Universities and Colleges system officials for not yet moving forward with a plan to ease credit transfers.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said making credit transfers easier has been a priority for years.
“When we did the (MnSCU) merger a few years back, we had language for credit transferability,” Carlson said. “It’s now 1997. How long do we have to wait?”
Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls, was also upset that MnSCU had not yet accomplished this goal. “It’s really frustrating. Why can’t you guys do this without us telling you to do it?”
Both higher education committees have discussed a plan this session requiring the systems to create a system known as common course numbering, which would make all higher education classes with similar class requirements have the same call number throughout the state.
However, the conference committee did not adopt the common course numbering system, choosing instead to require the University and MnSCU to develop a plan to install such a system.
The most heated moments of the meeting came in a discussion over the Virtual U system, which will connect all public and private universities and colleges in the state to one World Wide Web page.
Sen. Deanna Wiener, DFL-Eagan, favored requiring the systems to have classes offered online through the Virtual U system. Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, insisted the system is only meant as a “gateway” to all the higher education systems and was not meant to provide classes.
The committee, after much discussion, adopted Pelowski’s position, which sets up the one Web page and suggests that schools offer online classes. However, they will not be required to do so.