Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Budget Deficits and Educational Reform

In February of 2010 the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, submitted a supplementary budget proposal to the state legislature that, amongst other things, cut higher education spending by $47 million dollars. Faced with a $994 million budget deficitfor the current budget biennium , and massive $5.8 billion dollar projected deficit for the 2012-13 biennium, the Governor used his budgetary authority to take steps to solve the budget crisis. These budget cuts will result in tuition increases, layoffs of college and university employees, and even the discontinuation of some programs by a few institutions across the state. Cuts to higher education can be considered short-sighted when considering the already rising cost of tuition, which puts at risk both the competitiveness of Minnesota’s workforce in the coming years, as well as the state’s reputation as a leader in education.

Standing by his pledge to not raise taxes Pawlenty instead made cuts to higher education which were was shared between the University of Minnesota system that incurred a $36 million dollar cut, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) which had $10.5 million slashed from the budget. A year earlier Pawlenty cut $63 million dollars for higher ed., and also used the now unconstitutional power of unallotment to cut it further. Just a month after Pawlenty’s announcement, Minnesota State Mankato announced that 28 programs and 13 percent of the full-time faculty would be cut. St. Cloud State University also reacted by cutting 23 programs because “the state has limited the school's ability to raise tuition while at the same time cut money for higher education.” The University of Minnesota has been forced to respond with yet another tuition increase. These funding cuts and tuition increases come at a time that has already seen a historic rise in the cost of college tuition. The increase in tuition costs rose by 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 for a four year public institution. Meanwhile, state grants are close to running dry and unless more money is found “students who received an average of $1,700 last year will see a roughly $300 cut when they return to class this fall”.

All of these factors converge toward an uncomfortable, but seemingly unavoidable reality – college is becoming too expensive for everyone to have the opportunity to go. This hurts Minnesota both from an equity standpoint and also has long-term economic consequences as well. Minnesota has always valued educational opportunity for everyone that wants to go, and this has pushed Minnesota to become of the most economically developed states in the country. In a global economy, the demand for highly skilled, highly educated workers is higher than ever. Competing in the global market place requires a skill set for workers that is attractive for investment, and also one that increases the entrepreneurial capacity of the populace.

One possible solution would be to introduce a flexible tuition system, which alters tuition cost depending on the field of study. The proposed reform would seek to expand enrollment in programs – like math, engineering, finance and the sciences - that produced higher economic outputs by reducing tuition costs for these programs. The effects would be two-fold; first it would make college affordable for groups of socioeconomic classes have been increasingly excluded, and would also provide a pathway to success in a high demand field. Second, reform would expand future economic opportunity by training a new generation of highly skilled workers. Investing in human capital with a higher potential for long-term economic payout would improve MN budget outlook and increase entrepreneurial activity in the state.

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