Educating Minnesota's young people is one of the state's most important jobs. A good educational system boosts our economy and improves our quality of life. It's usually one of the first aspects Minnesotans bring up when they want to brag about their state.
That's why Gov. Jesse Ventura touched a nerve among educators when his funding for the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system fell far short of their requests.
Grappling in detail with the education funding numbers is a complex task and one that we won't attempt today. However certain thoughts and questions crop up when the education issue is debated.
-- Where exactly is the fat?
Gov. Ventura made general references to fat that needed to be cut and high salaries in education. While we all want government agencies to be run as efficiently as possible, the governor needs to specify where cuts can be made in higher education. His comments about high salaries were misleading. Even though the University of Minnesota president and some specific faculty members (such as those in the university's medical school) make more than Ventura, most college instructors or professors don't come anywhere near his $114,506 annual governor's salary.
University President Mark Yudof has done considerable cutting in administrative areas since he took over three years ago and some schools such as Central Lakes College are operating under a non-faculty hiring freeze.
-- Is Minnesota funding too many colleges and universities?
Former University of Minnesota Board of Regents Chair David Lebedoff raised this question in an essay in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Does Minnesota need a post-secondary institution within 35 miles of every high school graduate? Perhaps in the state's efforts to make education accessible we have unwittingly watered-down the educational product we offer. Once colleges and universities are established in a community the area legislators will fight like the devil to keep them open, citing their economic impact. It's similar to the difficulty the federal government has in closing down defense bases, even when, in some cases, the military doesn't want them.
--Since Minnesota has been one of the highest taxed states for several years, why are our college systems underfunded?
The same question could be asked about the state's transportation system and judicial system, whose proponents are also at the Legislature's doorstep asserting that they are under-funded. Where does the money go?
D.J. Tice, an editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, suggests government entities need to be challenged from time to time to make do with the resources they already have. Private businesses do this all the time, he noted and sometimes the process is disagreeable or downright painful.
-- Higher education will be hit hard if Ventura's legislative package goes through as proposed.
Minnesota students would face steep tuition hikes. Faculty positions and programs would be cut. All of this seem odd when the state is enjoying good economic times and surpluses.
Ventura proposed an increase of $56 million for the "U," -- less than a quarter of the $221 million than the administrators had requested. CLC received 18 percent of what it requested for the next two years, covering one-third of the school's inflation costs.
Ideally, Ventura and educators will meet somewhere in the middle when the lawmakers draw up the higher education bill. In the long run, the state would benefit from a serious study and policy debate on how well and how efficiently Minnesota's higher education system is delivering services to students.
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