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Published March 13 2012

U of M president: Invest in higher education

FARGO – When University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler hears certain politicians rail against colleges and universities as indoctrination mills for left-leaning snobs, he shakes his head in dismay.

“I think that’s probably some of the most dangerous demagoguery out there,” Kaler said. “I don’t know any problem that is better tackled by having less-educated people work on it.”

Kaler spoke with The Forum on Tuesday while in the area to visit Moorhead. Nine months into his tenure at Minnesota, he said he’s focused on trying to change the perception of higher education from a budget burden to a worthy investment for the future.

As states struggle to balance their books – sometimes by slowing or slashing funding to universities – that can be an uphill battle. In Minnesota and many other states, funding for higher education has fallen against inflation over the past decade, even as the number of students served has increased.

Kaler said squeezing higher education diminishes the potential cost-saving innovations in areas such as health care. A huge money-saver such as a cure for diabetes or cancer could be waiting in a university lab, he said, but the school needs funding to make it come to fruition.

“We can’t say for sure that will happen,” he said, “but we can say it won’t happen” if universities don’t have the resources to flourish.

He’s also trying to combat the notion that college degrees are overvalued. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, he said, but most everyone benefits from an education.

“People tell me, ‘Well, Steve Jobs didn’t graduate from college,’ ” he said. “Well, that’s true, but I bet a whole lot of people who work for Apple went to college.”

With the costs of attendance on the rise – undergraduate tuition and fees at Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus have more than doubled from $5,002 a decade ago to $11,650 this year – Kaler said it’s the university’s job to send graduates off with the tools to forge a career, not to mention to service loan debts.

One thing the university can do to help students financially: Put them in a position to graduate on time.

“Every semester you show up, we charge you tuition,” Kaler said. “The cost of getting that degree matters to me.”

To help expedite the path to graduation, he’s proposed a year-round calendar. Such a move would be a rarity in higher education, and is still under consideration.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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