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Paul W. Harris, Published December 30 2013

Letter: Declining state support root of university woes

The pair of front-page stories (The Forum, Dec. 22) says a great deal about the state of public higher education today. The lead story detailed Dean Bresciani’s relentless pursuit of wealthy donors for North Dakota State University. Below that, an article revisited the declining enrollment and budget woes at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

The common denominator in these stories is the decreasing support state universities receive from state governments. Unable to rely on public tax dollars, fundraising in the private sector has become a central function of state university presidents. It is a poor substitute. Apart from the time and money that gets invested in an uncertain appeal, the article notes that successful wooing typically involves “a project or campaign the donor believes in.” In other words, charitable contributions do not afford a stable source of revenue to fund the base operating budget of a university.

To alleviate that problem, state universities have depended on increasing tuition. The result has been a dramatic shift in who pays the cost of a college education. As recently as 2002, the state of Minnesota underwrote two-thirds of the budget for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities; a decade later, that had fallen to 40 percent, with tuition accounting for the other 60 percent. As MSUM and similar institutions become dependent on tuition dollars, an enrollment drop that would have been worrisome a few years ago becomes a dire threat today.

Beyond the immediate crisis at MSUM, this shift has had a major impact. To pay for their education, students take on ever increasing amounts of debt. According to a recent study by the Institute for College Access and Success, recent college graduates in Minnesota now carry the fourth-highest debt load in the nation at $31,497. Faced with paying off these loans in an uncertain job market, students must focus on landing lucrative employment immediately out of college, and the long-term benefits of education for personal growth and achievement become devalued.

The result of all this is that the public in general too often regards higher education as a private good with the sole purpose of training workers, rather than a public investment in the next generation, and the political will to address the decline in state funding seems lacking.

Many state legislators understand that this does not bode well for the future health of our communities and states, but they need to know that their constituents share their concerns.

Harris is professor of history at MSUM.