Higher ed in greater Minnesota braces for unallotment crunch


For Minnesota’s college administrators, the announcement of the Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotment plans was a good news/bad news story. The size of the budgetary hit was not as big as they expected. But, it’s still a substantial amount. They were prepared for it, but it’s still coming.

The governor announced that the state’s two higher-education systems — which comprise 32 colleges and state universities, plus the four University of Minnesota campuses outside the Twin Cities — will each take a hit of $50 million dollars, or about a 3.6 percent drop. Many of these campuses are a couple of hundred miles away from St. Paul where the budget decisions are made.

Kurt Hanson, a provost of Northland Community and Technical College in Northwest Minnesota, said the recession hasn’t hit that part of the state too badly, because of its proximity to North Dakota, which is doing relatively well. His school primarily provides job training programs, two-year degrees and general education credits for North Dakota and Minnesota students. Several months ago the president of the Minnesota State College and University (MnSCU) system told the member schools to look for money to cut, Hanson recalls.

“What we were given was a target of about 11.7 percent reduction in our allotments,” he said. That meant a $1.5 million mark for Northland to hit for the 2010 fiscal year. “We achieved that through some efficiencies in course section deliveries. If we had a psychology course that had cap of 40 and we had two sections with about 20 students, we’d reduce it to one section.”

That’s also meant leaving some positions open if people left them. Hanson said he knows his school is the type of institution that people turn to if they lose their job and want to pick up classes or a degree that would provide people with job training. The recession can help keep enrollments for schools like this relatively high, and at Northland, the fact that tuition is holding steady for the second straight year is appealing to prospective students.

“We certainly feel that we will be an important part of retraining people for the downturn in the economy,” Hanson said in an interview.

Edna Szymanski, the new president of Minnesota State University at Moorhead, had a different situation to deal with: a deficit and a subsequent hiring freeze. Between that and the new budget, Szymanski said: “It’s my job to say, ‘No.’”

Szymanski said that she and her fellow system presidents were told to expect bad budgetary news. She said that the previous deficits combined with the new figures will probably mean about a $9 million hit. “It was our job to keep the university alive during the recession and we did.”

Szymanksi said she doesn’t see a lot of competition from other institutions including ones that are right across the river in Fargo, N.D. “[North Dakota State University] is a graduate institution that focuses on research for that state. We primarily provide undergraduate education and some graduate programs.”

The University of Minnesota system was prepared for a cut in the neighborhood of $73 million. The CFO of the system, Richard Pfutzenreuter, told the Star Tribune: “I was just telling someone, well, the front end of the car got taken off, but at least the whole car isn’t destroyed.”

Continuing the analogy, it’s the out-state campuses, like the one that serves Crookston, that are going to have drive this car.

University president Charles Casey said it’s important that people realize that the University of Minnesota includes campuses like his at Crookston, which serves some 1,200 students. Casey says that his campus tries to train students directly for work, and has been dropping two-year degrees in for newer four-year degrees, like Communication.

“Saying I feel a little bit of frustration would be an understatement,” said Casey, who noted that his school has been trying to cast a wider net in its recruitment while also addressing budget realities, like dropping extras such as hockey. Casey said the school is hoping that that scholarship and federal stimulus money will hold tuition down and enrollments steady.

“I think it’s the reality today and we have to deal with the situation we have and not make as many investments as we have in the last couple of years.”

Students, too, are worried about funding levels. Tyler Smith, president-elect of the Minnesota State College Student Association, told the Star Tribune that “we’re still disappointed about the continued cuts to higher education,” fearing big tuition increases in the future and “decreased quality today.”

Meanwhile, the states two university and college systems are looking for a way to handle whatever good news comes along and bracing for more bad news.