What do the data say on Minnesota higher ed spending?

In a state that’s long loved to brag about the money it spends on schools, it was a bit of a surprise to hear Gov. Mark Dayton say higher education funding had fallen to levels not seen since 1980-81.

He’s right. And yet data claims always come with caveats. This one’s no exception.

Here are Dayton’s remarks from his 2013 State of the State:

…In real dollars, our state spends $569 million less on higher education in the current biennium, than we did 16 years ago.

I asked the MMB [state budget office] staff to look back even further, into the paper records. They found that the last time we actually spent less to support higher education, in real dollars, than we are in FY12-13 … was in FY80-81.

I’ll say it again. In every biennium since FY80-81, real state spending for all of postsecondary education has been higher than it is today.

We asked the state budget office for the data. Here are the numbers they gave us, starting with the 1980-1981 biennium.

So the data show Dayton’s correct.

And yet, a casual reader might conclude, incorrectly, that it’s been a grim stretch for post secondary spending. The reality is the 80-81 biennium and the current biennium are outliers in an era that saw huge increases in higher education spending.

Here’s the same chart as above, but with lines for the average and median spending during those years. The state in that period averaged nearly $3.2 billion a year in inflation adjusted spending — significantly higher than ’80-’81 and ’12-’13, which turn out to be the two lowest spending cycles in that span.

The data also don’t count the money the Legislature spends on capital bonding projects for buildings and other assets on the state’s public college campuses. The budget office had data — not inflation adjusted — back to 1990 on capital spending projects at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems. Here’s a look.

To policy experts, these are separate buckets of money. Outside the Capitol, I’d guess that most Minnesotans would count higher ed bonding projects as higher ed spending.

Again, Dayton was correct in his speech. But a deeper look at the data show the past couple decades of higher ed spending is better than it sounds.

As always, if anyone has different or better data on the topic, please send it on and we’ll talk through it in future posts.