Colleges face budget woes

ST. PAUL -- Student tuition should not be increased to soften the blow of budget cuts to Minnesota colleges and universities, a top lawmaker and higher education leaders said.

ST. PAUL -- Student tuition should not be increased to soften the blow of budget cuts to Minnesota colleges and universities, a top lawmaker and higher education leaders said.

University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities officials said Wednesday that raising tuition to make up for proposed cuts in state spending is their least-preferred option, but they also did not rule out tuition hikes.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week proposed more than $50 million in higher education cuts as part of his plan to plug an estimated $938 million state budget deficit.

The proposed cuts include a $26.6 million reduction in state appropriations to MnSCU for fiscal year 2009, said Jon Quistgaard, president of Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College.

He said the MnSCU Chancellor's Office is in the process of consulting with the presidents across the system and conferring with the MnSCU Board of Trustees on how to best address the "serious challenges" this would bring to campuses.


"Northwest Technical College and Bemidji State University has been working very hard to balance our budget for (fiscal year) '09 based on the decision to keep our tuition increases at their lowest level since 1998," Quistgaard added.

He said BSU and NTC understand that they have a major responsibility to employers to make sure they are creating educated workers that are needed to be competitive.

As BSU and NTC learn more from the Chancellor's Office and the Board of Trustees, the schools will be able to consider its options, he said.

University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said cutting that spending not only hurts his institution and MnSCU, but also private colleges and the state.

"To put higher education out at the front of the parade when it comes to budget reductions, it's just not a very smart strategy," Bruininks told a House committee. He said higher education should expect some budget cuts, but Pawlenty's proposal disproportionately targets colleges and universities.

The Republican governor said those cuts would come on the heels of double-digit funding increases approved last year.

"All institutions, particularly in challenging times, can find some money to find efficiencies and reductions and it should not affect - we do not believe -- tuition if they do this correctly," Pawlenty said.

"If they need some help identifying where to cut, we'll be happy to make some suggestions to them, starting with administration in both institutions," he added.


But Rep. Tom Rukavina, who leads the House higher education committee, said he will not go along with Pawlenty's proposed cuts to universities and colleges. He said they are rebounding from previous state budget cuts.

"I'm not going to make the kind of significant cuts that he has asked this committee to take," said Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. He suggested he may propose taking more money from two other state agencies under his committee's jurisdiction and less from colleges and universities.

If the governor's proposed $27 million cut became reality, Bruininks said the University of Minnesota could trim costs, which would prompt nearly 400 employee layoffs, or defer investments, such as in research. Doing that would threaten the university's competitiveness, he said.

A third option would be to raise tuition.

"That will be the last place we will look," Bruininks told Rukavina's Higher Education and Workforce Development Policy and Finance Division.

Lawmakers were told that to make up for a proposed $26 million state budget cut, the MnSCU system would have to roll back new investments it has made, order campuses across the state to cut programs and counseling by 4 percent or raise tuition by 4 percent.

"None of these choices are attractive to us," said Laura King, MnSCU's vice chancellor for finance. "There's no way for us to remove this much money from the budget without a serious impact on students, on faculty and on the strategic initiatives that include providing the education workforce that Minnesota needs."

In an interview, Bruininks said it is too early to know how proposed budget cuts would impact the university's campuses outside the Twin Cities, including in Duluth, Crookston and Morris. However, he said "I personally hope that we could lessen the impact on our smaller campuses in greater Minnesota."


"We're going to do everything to protect access to education across the state," he added.

Pawlenty said the University of Minnesota probably could handle its share of the deficit fix by using some of its reserve funds to replace state funds that are cut.

"It may not even necessarily involve programmatic changes," the governor said of the university's proposed cuts.

It is not wise to use reserve funds to balance a long-term budget, Bruininks told legislators.

Democratic legislators said budget cuts have hurt the quality of Minnesota's higher education institutions.

Rep. Bud Nornes, a Fergus Falls Republican and former House higher education committee chairman, said the state still provides first-class colleges and universities.

"It may be more expensive, but what isn't?" he said.

Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said lawmakers do not want to cut funding to higher education, but are limited to considering deficit-solving options Pawlenty will allow. He called on Bruininks and others to lobby.


"We need your help," Moe said.

College students told the committee that they were attracted to Minnesota's higher education systems in part because of its cost. Budget cuts resulting in tuition hikes would threaten the universities' appeal, they said.

Kara Brockett, of the Minnesota State Universities Student Association, said that system has done what it can to keep tuition down.

However, she said she is concerned about the impact of continued cuts.

"What's that doing to the quality of education, and then what does that do to the quality of the workforce that then goes into Minnesota?" she asked.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer. Pioneer staff writer Michelle Ruckdaschel contributed to the story.

What To Read Next
Get Local