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Conservative policy undermines state education, research

Bemidji State University, along with its MnSCU partners, have committed to providing quality, affordable in-state educational opportunities at all levels, thanks in part to significant public investment. However, in recent years we're seeing state support for higher education erode, putting a bigger burden on students and their families.

Under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's tenure (from FY 2002-03 to FY 2010-11), state general fund support for higher education has declined by $521 million (15.5 percent) in constant FY 2011 dollars. As a result, tuition has risen by a 60 percent real-dollar average across Minnesota's higher education institutions. Since 2001, the division between higher education funding from the state general fund and tuition has gone from about a 70-30 split to a nearly 50-50 split in 2010.

This trend will likely continue if candidate Tom Emmer is elected governor. He's proposing a $417 million (14.3 percent) higher education cut in his first biennium alone. While Tom Horner and Mark Dayton aren't providing detailed higher education funding plans, both say they're committed to investing in the state's colleges and universities.

It's tough to say exactly what kind of tuition hike Emmer's cuts would cause, but Minnesota 2020's Fiscal Policy Fellow Jeff Van Wychen used the previous 10-year trend based on state figures to determine Minnesota students' increased financial load. According to Van Wychen's analysis, each dollar cut from state funding for higher education has translated into a 52 cent increase in tuition, with the remaining 48 cents covered through budget reductions or increased dependence on other revenue.

These declines come on top of a 14 percent inflation-adjusted decrease in K-12 state education funding over the same period. In both cases, neither property tax hikes for younger Minnesota students nor tuition hikes for those in college have been enough to replace lost state dollars. Essentially, Minnesota's parents and students are paying more and getting less at every educational level. This direction compromises Minnesota's prosperity, especially when students face increased international pressure in a global job market.

For generations, robust K-16 educational support has provided Minnesota companies with a strong, well-educated workforce. Through a combination of MnSCU-educated workers and the University of Minnesota's research, as well as private schools, the state has become a leader in several industries, including a center for North America's food processing and agribusiness. In fact, the U of M system is one of less than a handful of research universities in America with interrelated sciences involving food, agriculture, natural resources, animal health and supportive sciences.

However, this legacy of educating and producing a new generation of well-equip workers and leaders needs help maintaining these long-held traditions. American research institutions are falling behind in educating people needed in key areas of Minnesota's economy, Penn State University analysis reveals.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data show 54,400 jobs will be needed annually between now and 2015 for people with bachelor's and graduate degrees in food sciences, renewable energy and environmental specialties.

Respected non-partisan state policy leaders Tom Stinson, the state's economist, and Tom Gillaspy, Minnesota's demographer, have called for investment in education and research among many strategies to increase the state's workforce productivity and solve our long-term fiscal dilemmas. However, conservative policy dictates spending that includes tax increases is off the table. This is a bad policy and a poor direction for the future.

That's why we must look back to move forward, remembering the direction past governors and leaders set when they invested in education and valued nurturing human capital. We must re-invest before we do too much damage to our education and research capacity.

Lee Egerstrom is an economic development policy fellow at Minnesota 2020, a St. Paul-based progressive think tank.