Legislators cut college funding short

Brian Close

State legislators are not following a statute that recommends the amount of funding to the University, forcing administrators to put a higher tuition burden on students.
The statute, updated in 1995, states that the Legislature “intends” to pay for 67 percent of students’ instructional costs, leaving the student burden at 33 percent.
However, the average University student paid 43 percent of their instructional costs this year, according to University officials.
Most attribute the problem to the Legislature not appropriating enough money to the University and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
“The numbers that we get from the state don’t reflect that policy. By and large, it is a meaningless statute from my perspective,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, associate vice president for budget and finance.
The state provided $543 million for the University this fiscal year. But not all of this state funding is used for instructional costs. Some of it goes to individual programs and University projects. In the end, about $280 million goes toward instructional costs.
The rest of this cost — about $219 million — will come from student tuition.
One main reason for this high student burden is that the state’s funding has not increased at the level of inflation, said Phil Lewenstein, director of communications and legislative services at the state’s Higher Education Services Office.
“For much of the ’90s, there was a shift in the percentage because the state wasn’t keeping up with appropriations to higher education,” he said.
Judy Borgen, associate vice chancellor for finance at MnSCU, said this session was the first in about six years in which the schools have received a significant increase in funding.
Pfutzenreuter agreed the state was more generous in the last budget year.
“We held tuition down last year and the president is committed to trying to hold the tuition increase for undergraduates in the 2.5 to 3 percent range next year,” he said. “We are hopeful that the Legislature will give us some money that is part of our supplemental request.”
Faculty salary raises were another reason for the increase in student burden, Borgen said.
“You can make some reductions and you can make some changes, but some of that has to fall on the students’ tuition,” she said.
Lisa DeRemee, executive budget officer at the Minnesota Department of Finance, said tuition has increased partly because of a recession in the early 1990s, when the state cut appropriations in many places.
“The higher education board increased the tuition rate to make up revenue,” she said.
DeRemee said the 67 percent in the statute is a policy goal, not a binding law.
“That formula exists more in the ideal than in the real,” she said.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, agreed the formula is not used much anymore, and has not been met because of funding competition at the Legislature.
“The number is more of a goal. We try to do as much for the U and for the other higher education institutions as we can, but I would say that when the (allocations are made), that 67 percent number is not much of a factor in the calculations,” he said.
Part of the reason the burden is higher is the University’s expenditures are higher than the Legislature projects, said Dave Buelow, fiscal analyst for the Senate Higher Education Committee.
“If the Legislature expects the University to spend a dollar, and the Legislature says ‘we will pay 67 cents’, and then it goes to the University, which says ‘I am going to spend $2.’ Now the Legislature has provided only 33 percent,” he said.
The issue gained notice last year when MnSCU students lobbied the Legislature with signs saying “33 percent. It’s the law.”
Students in the MnSCU state and community colleges currently pay an average of 37 percent of the cost of their education.
The University’s Student Legislative Coalition has not taken a position on the issue, said Cheryl Jorgensen, the coalition’s president.
“This year the focus of our lobbying efforts is the University’s capital bonding request and the preservation of the student regent position,” she said. “Next year we plan to focus on financial aid and the cost of tuition.”
Frank Viggiano, executive director of the Minnesota State University Student Association, one of three student groups for MnSCU, suggests the Legislature’s projections about the cost of education may be off.
“Obviously, their view is different from what the governing boards think it is,” he said. “The governing board gets caught in the middle. They can’t hit that goal.”
Pfutzenreuter agreed that, with the current funding, it is inconceivable that the goal would be reached.
“For us to take state dollars and adjust tuition down to some mythical formula that the state itself is ignoring would hurt lots of programs,” he said. “I can’t even imagine how you would go about doing that.”