What's in the higher-ed omnibus bill discussions so far

The House higher education committee has recessed, so here are some highlights from the omnibus bill session mentioned so far. They’ve given an overview, but haven’t discussed individual amendments yet — so there’s more than what you see below.

(I’ve covered much of the legislation in previous posts. And some of this is separate legislation.)

  • Spending. Little change. The House would reduce overall higher ed spending by 10.9 percent. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system would each take cuts of 13.1 percent (a little less than the previous 13.3 percent). The Office of Higher Ed’s administration would take 15.4 percent in cuts, and the State Grant program would see an increase of 9.4 percent (less than the 11.9 percent announced last week). The state would withhold one percent of the funding for both MnSCU and the U until the systems met benchmarks related to things such as graduation rates, diversity and institutional financial aid.
  • Tuition. State universities would face a tuition cap of 4 percent and two-year state colleges would have a cap of 2 percent. “Our two-year schools are kind of at the top of the tuition scale, and we’re trying to get our colleges competitive,” said committee Chairman Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls). “Technical and community colleges need more tuition relief.” The University of Minnesota would not adhere to a percentage, but could increase revenue from students only by $76.3 million. How that translates into a percentage is unclear, though. U of M Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter called the mandate “vague” and said he wasn’t sure what kind of tuition increase that meant. It would also encourage colleges and universities to offer guaranteed tuition programs that would keep tuition stable over a standard-length college or university career.
  • Seniors. The House would reduce from 66 to 62 the age at which residents could participate in a reduced-rate college courses.
  • Credits. MnSCU would have to allow students to transfer credits from one MnSCU school to another on a 1:1 basis, at least as electives.
  • Made-in-America requirements. The bill would repeal requirements for college bookstores to sell apparel made in America, and for public employers (such as higher-ed institutions) from requiring the purchase of certain items from the United States. “It’s well-intentioned,” Nornes said, “but this (requirement) has been costing public employers additional funding.”

Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) scolded Republicans:

“This bill probably does more damage to higher education (than any before it). If it gets to governor, then this would be a “transformation” of higher education — we hear that word a lot these days — but it would be transformation done with a bludgeon.”

State Office of Higher Education analyst Tricia Grimes said the proposed 15 percent cut could mean four layoffs — a decent chunk in an agency of 24 people. Cuts could mean the office couldn’t print publications that explain financial aid to students, or answer phone calls seeking advice or audit how campuses spend money.

She said:

“They couldn’t provide stewardship for the state.”

MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick argued against the proposed tuition caps, saying colleges and universities needed to be able to increase tuition by at least 5 percent to make up for the lower state appropriations.

MSU-Moorhead President Edna Mora Szymanski echoed that, saying the cap, combined with the cuts, could cause her to lose several more faculty positions than without.

Pelowski asked Szymanski and Lake Superior College President Patrick Johns to say how many faculty and programs would be cut under the House bill.

Szymanski said she could lose up to nine faculty and an academic program. Johns said Lake Superior could lose as many as eight faculty.

Yet McCormick didn’t had numbers for the whole system, prompting Pelowski to growl:

“We’re going to need specificity from you like you’ve never seen before — how many faculty, how many programs, what they are. That’s if you want things to change. If you don’t (get me the data), then don’t complain if it becomes law.”

Pelowski also pressed the MnSCU officials to use their reserves to alleviate cuts. McCormick said it was for “one-time” difficult situations, but that the gravity of the matter did suggest that “everything would have to be looked at.”

Despite the chancellor’s and Szymanski’s warnings that using the reserves would not solve the problem long-term — and that colleges could lose accreditation if they used them — Pelowski was unsatisfied:

“Then when would you ever spend the reserves? This is a crisis second only to the Great Depression. You’re sitting on tens of millions of dollars, and yet you’re willing to lay off faculty. … Something has to change in higher education.”

Pelowski Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) wrapped up by warning the committee that such deep cuts wouldn’t get past Gov. Mark Dayton:

“These cuts are really like19% without the (previous federal) stimulus support. … The governor always gets his way, so we’re playing a charade here and we need to get down to business. People were told to prepare for a 5 percent tuition increase — but not a cut like this. We shouldn’t be scaring all these people.”