ST. PAUL (AP) -- At a time when the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system faces a possible $200 million-plus budget cut from the state, more than one quarter of its two-year campuses have been underused.
But don't expect MnSCU to move to shut down some of these campuses to deal with the budget crunch.
MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick, who said closing a campus is "one of the last things" he would do, indicated he'll leave to others the question of whether Minnesota can afford to maintain its 46 two-year public campuses.
"The people of Minnesota will eventually decide what they want to pay for and what to invest in," he said.
In the meantime, tuition increases and severe budget cuts are likely, but millions of dollars will keep flowing to operate, maintain and repair the underused campuses.
The problem exists because many of the campuses aren't where the people are. Some of them are in remote towns where the population has been declining for years, with no turnaround in sight.
"If we were starting the technical college system over, nobody would locate some of those campuses where they are," said Joseph Graba, who led the technical college system as its first state commissioner from 1983 to 1989.
Following a 1960s commitment to locate a college campus within 35 miles of every Minnesotan, many towns eagerly competed for state and federal money to build campuses. At first, some technical colleges were packed because classes were free. But tuition and steady population losses cut enrollments in many rural areas.
A 2001 study showed that while two-year campuses in cities like St. Cloud, Faribault, Moorhead, Duluth and Minneapolis needed more space, 12 others had a classroom space surplus of 30 percent of more in 2000. Four campuses had at least 50 percent more classroom space than they needed.
Retired legislator Peggy Leppik thinks a discussion of the viability of MnSCU's two-year campuses is overdue.
"They certainly serve a purpose in bringing educational opportunity close to home. But they are also expensive to maintain. When we have to make every dollar count, it's something you have to look at," she said.
A 2001 study commissioned by MnSCU showed that at its busiest time, only 42 percent of classrooms at a technical school in Canby, Minn., were in use Monday through Thursday. At another campus in Pipestone, 45 percent of classrooms were in use at peak times. Canby had a 68 percent surplus in teaching lab space.
The study forecast that Canby will have a 52 percent space surplus and Pipestone a 41 percent surplus in 2005-06.
Officials at Minnesota West Community and Technical College say those figures are misleading because the space needed by some large equipment classes skews the results.
"I could never fill the square footage that the mid-'60s left here. ... Nobody could," Minnesota West President Ron Wood said. "It was overbuilt initially, but that should not be a condemnation of our efficiency today."
Wood describes the campuses as the lifeblood of small towns that need nurses, people who can repair diesel engines and ethanol plant processing technicians.
He also says they're efficient. Five campus administrations merged into one in 1997. A business office reorganization saved $120,000. Faculty numbers have held nearly steady at around 100. Of MnSCU's $1.3 billion budget, the Canby campus' budget is $1.2 million a year.
"This campus doesn't cost the state a hoot," Wood said.
But a 1999 MnSCU study estimated the cost of priority repairs at Canby at almost $4.3 million. The cost per square foot was second-highest among the 53 campuses in the study and more than triple the per-square-foot cost of the average technical campus. At Pipestone, priority repairs were estimated at almost $2.7 million, and per-square-foot costs were almost double that of the technical campus average.
Closing a campus is an explosive issue, said Terry McTaggart, former chancellor of the old Minnesota State University System and now a consultant and professor in Maine. He said towns cling to their campuses, and emotions often obscure the financial facts.
"All the legislators from other small towns think, 'Maybe we're next,' " McTaggart said.
In 2000, MnSCU, armed with data showing Anoka-Hennepin Technical College was inefficient and expensive to run, tried to close the campus. The Board of Trustees voted to close it, but local legislators, worried about the impact on their community, quickly intervened to keep it open.
Gov. Pawlenty's spokeswoman, Leslie Kupchella, said closing campuses "is not something he's looking at right now."
Rep. Gene Pelowski, the ranking DFLer on the House Higher Education Finance Committee, said Pawlenty's suggested budget cuts of more than $400 million for the state's two higher-education systems "force the issue of how much access we can afford."
"I don't see any way around raising the question," Pelowski said. "It would be nice to have (a campus) within a half-hour drive. However, Minnesota may say we can't afford it. Maybe we'll have to drive an hour or two."
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