Senator Dan Sparks: Program cuts loom at Minnesota colleges and universities

Minnesota colleges and universities are taking to Twitter, local newspaper editorials and email campaigns to get the word out: the legislature’s 2017 Higher Education Bill falls short of the financial requirements needed to fund education, student services and outreach programs. The Republican bill provides an additional $125 million in spending, but is only 39 percent of what the institutions requested to maintain and innovate program offerings. As a result, students will be short-changed due to inadequate funding.

The bill creates a tuition freeze for higher education institutions – but doesn’t give them enough money to do it. Four-year schools will follow a mandatory freeze and two-year schools will reduce tuition by one percent. The University of Minnesota has the option to freeze their tuition. While I agree, a tuition freeze is an important acknowledgement of rising tuition costs – it’s the state’s job to provide funding to schools to help implement freezes. As a result, colleges will have no choice but to drop student programs and cut staff. This will lead to fewer course offerings, larger class sizes, and fewer professors to teach those classes.

Mandatory student fees will also be eliminated in Minnesota colleges as a provision of this bill. The University of Minnesota has the option to follow these guidelines, with a penalty if mandatory fees are charged. While I see the appeal of their elimination, these fees provide many necessary student services on campuses. At the University of Minnesota, student health, recreation facilities, student unions, and a sexual assault counselling center are all funded by these fees.

Riverland Community College has a parent center which provides outreach and direct services to their students who have or are expecting children. Without these fees, the student support structure of our higher education institutions will be in jeopardy.

The University of Minnesota is also being short-changed with this bill. Typically, there is a 60/40 funding split for Minnesota State Colleges and the U of M. In the proposed bill the split will be 80/20. This unnecessary split places a heavy burden on the University system and its students. The University of Minnesota has already predicted that their students will have to bear the burden of cost with increased tuition rates for 2018-2019.

Higher tuition rates may have a negative impact on whether or not students choose our colleges and universities. If tuition rates increase, students may choose to attend universities with lower rates. Students may not want to attend colleges with larger class sizes and fewer available courses. Schools in other states could become more attractive. Whether or not Minnesota natives who move out of state for college will come back to Minnesota’s workforce is difficult to predict.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler stated that inadequate funding will also hurt outreach programs and research that directly benefit Minnesota. The Hormel Institute in Austin could lose significant funding for their cancer treatment and prevention research. Underfunding the University of Minnesota will also hurt Minnesota farmers. The extension program through the U of M works with farmers to help solve agriculture problems. They work hands-on to improve the food system within the state. I am worried that our communities will suffer with fewer resources going to these outreach programs.

The 2017 Higher Education Bill will hurt our Minnesota college students and reduce the assistance our communities receive through outreach programs and research. Minnesota faces a serious worker shortage and businesses are clamoring for qualified workers. We need thoughtfulness and innovation, not cuts to the systems that help educate our workforce. This bill is a step in the wrong direction for improving our higher education system.

 

This column was first published by the Austin Herald.

Senator Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks represents District 27, which includes all or portions of Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Mower, and Steele counties in the southeastern part of the state.

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