Policymakers | Costs

Universities must earn the funding they seek

For instance, by focusing more on education and less on administration.
STAR TRIBUNE   |  March 18, 2010 by Anne D. Neal and Annette Meeks

Every child eventually figures it out: You can’t spend too much of your allowance on candy. If you do, Mom and Dad won’t be happy when you don’t have enough money for pencils.

This may seem like an elementary lesson, but since the state budget deficit is projected to grow to $5.8 billion by 2012, it is one Minnesota’s public universities need to learn.

As the higher education report card our organizations are releasing today shows, too many state institutions have poured money into the Ph.D. equivalent of candy—hiring administrators—while neglecting their true purpose: delivering a quality education in the classroom. Unless they change their ways, their pleas for protection in the midst of budget cuts will understandably fall on deaf ears.

Tuition and fees are eating up an ever-increasing share of the average family’s income. Increases in administrative spending outpace increases in instructional spending—which should, of course, be the university’s priority. Graduation rates are abysmally low. And significant numbers of students report an intellectual climate that is not conducive to what lies at the heart of any sound education: the robust exchange of ideas.

Consider the cost of college. At the 10 public, four-year universities we researched, tuition and fees increased by an average of 19.8 percent between 2003 and 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

The universities will, of course, blame scarce state appropriations. But reflexive tuition increases cannot be the only means of balancing budgets.

Tuition at MnSCU schools has been rising substantially, but there are positive signs. The MnSCU Board of Trustees has taken significant steps to address costs. Between 2007 and 2009, the board opened 191 new programs but closed 345—indicating that it carefully looked at its priorities.

By contrast, the University of Minnesota regents opened three new programs for every one they closed during our review period.

MnSCU’s trustees have also made several efforts to tie appropriations to performance and thereby allocate resources more efficiently.

Cutting costs is, however, only half the battle. There is an equally pressing need to ensure that more students get a well-rounded and timely degree. Getting a bachelor’s degree, for instance, is supposed to be a four-year process. But not one of the institutions we assessed graduates even half its students in four years. And on most campuses, the students who do complete their degrees can do so without having taken a broad survey of American history or economics—the kind that would prepare them to become informed citizens.

Of course, there is some good news. One area in which the state universities are doing a good job is in ensuring that all students graduate with certain fundamental skills that all employers look for. Nearly all campuses require composition and college-level math and science. The U of M and MnSCU boards also function in a transparent manner and are well-structured.

Minnesota taxpayers have generously supported their state universities. If those institutions wish to continue receiving such largesse—which they clearly do—it is incumbent upon them to tackle the issues of cost and quality outlined in our report card.

Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. The two organizations just published “At a Crossroads: A Report Card on Public Higher Education in Minnesota,” available at goacta.org.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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