- Associated Press - Thursday, January 22, 2015

Star Tribune, Jan. 21

U, higher ed deserve a boost at State Capitol

When University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler came to the State Capitol last week to begin his biennial pitch for a slice of the budget, he seemed a bit like a fellow who had been excluded from a neighborhood party. Just a week into the new legislative session, there already had been a flurry of talk about higher education. But most of it focused on the two-year colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, not the flagship U.

Kaler admitted that he had not been consulted before state Senate DFL leaders announced that Senate File 2 - a high-priority bill for the majority caucus - would provide free community college tuition for qualifying Minnesota high school graduates. He was also surprised when, the next day, President Obama said he would ask Congress for much the same thing.

Kaler didn’t say he opposes the idea. But he also didn’t voice support for it. “I think that we need higher aspirations than just community colleges for the citizens of Minnesota,” he allowed. “I think the state should support higher ed more broadly. The ability to get those first two years out of the way is important. But we don’t want to limit our horizons to that level. … For many students, a four-year experience is what they want and need.”

His point is well taken. Legislators clearly have heard employers’ pleas for more of the technically trained workers who emerge from two-year programs at MnSCU and private colleges like Dunwoody Institute. But legislators should know that Minnesota also faces an impending shortage in professions that require longer study - engineering, teaching, dentistry and other medical workers, to name a few.

Those emerging shortages are among the reasons that 2015 ought to be a banner year at the Legislature for higher ed - that is, for policies and programs that generate more success by more students. That must include efforts to optimize the performances of both MnSCU and the U; to reduce financial barriers to higher learning, and to bring more higher learning into high schools, workplaces and other nontraditional settings.

Higher ed was among the state budget lines that took a disproportionate hit in the wake of the Great Recession. The result at the U (see accompanying graph) has been higher tuition for students, heavier debts for graduates and, inevitably, sticker shock that keeps some would-be students away - even as per-student costs in constant dollars decreased.

The next big dip that’s coming to Minnesota appears to be demographic. The number of people between ages 25 and 64 in Minnesota is forecast to decline over the next two decades. That would mean a labor shortage and a drag on the state’s economy unless more Minnesotans avail themselves of post-high-school education of every type - two-year, four-year and beyond.

More funding by state taxpayers would “rebalance” higher-ed costs by lightening student loads, Kaler says. It’s why the university’s Board of Regents is seeking $65.2 million over two years in exchange for a promise to legislators: no tuition increase through 2016-17.

We wish the regents - and the MnSCU Board of Trustees - would not invite legislators into their tuition deliberations in this way. State support should be one of several considerations that governing boards weigh as they set tuition. Market position, campus needs, faculty priorities, the financial composition of the student body and opportunities for efficiency are among other factors that should figure into their thinking.

Legislators are bound to find a tuition freeze proposal politically tempting - though the freeze initiated in 2013 wasn’t potent enough to rescue House DFLers from defeat in the 2014 election. But legislators should ask whether a tuition freeze at the price the regents and MnSCU’s trustees have named is the best way to deploy state resources in order to maximize student achievement. Today’s college costs are an impediment to higher learning for some students and a bargain for others. Legislators should consider whether more help for the students who need it most might do more than a tuition freeze to produce more graduates.

Kaler’s Capitol visit reminded legislators of one thing more: Keeping Minnesota’s only research university strong would yield dividends that workforce training efforts alone can’t deliver. Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to invest $30 million to bolster the U’s Medical School, announced Wednesday, is an acknowledgment of that fact.

University research has the potential to solve some of this state’s most vexing problems, from curing diabetes and cancer to allowing mining to proceed without ill effects on human health or the natural environment. Those advancements can spur business growth and serve as a talent magnet, even as they improve this state’s quality of life.

Legislative stewards of state higher-ed dollars would do well this year to ask how that money can be used to yield more of the skilled workers that are in short supply. But they should also remember that higher education has always been about more than training for employment and that Minnesota’s investments in its university have given this state handsome returns.


The Free Press of Mankato, Jan. 20

Outstate agenda gains momentum

As the political narrative that Greater Minnesota matters gains traction at the State Capitol, it appears policy geared toward outstate is also gaining momentum.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s appearance Tuesday at an event that included hundreds of Mankato area leaders was significant for the Mankato region and its coming of age as part of Minnesota’s economy that deserves attention.

Dayton addressed leaders at the Mankato Day at the Capitol event hosted by Greater Mankato Growth. The governor, in opening remarks, lauded the area’s low unemployment rate at a mere 2 percent and its job growth and other factors of a growing economy. Mankato has led on issues like transportation, jump-starting a new innovative program called the Corridors of Commerce that awarded millions of dollars for Highway 14.

Also on Wednesday, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities laid out a five point plan of policy objectives geared to help outstate Minnesota grow even more.

The initiatives were not surprising. Greater Minnesota Cities lobbying efforts will be aimed at bolstering Local Government Aid, a grant program to expand outstate broadband, job training and housing. Transportation is another key platform.

What is surprising is the optimism experts seem to have about Greater Minnesota actually receiving some of these needed investments.

Longtime Republican House leader Marty Seifert, now working as a lobbyist for the coalition, said he’s never seen this much attention focused on outstate Minnesota through his 14 years in the Legislature. He said he was optimistic about a bipartisan coalition of legislators embracing many of the outstate group’s ideas.

Seifert suggests that the Republican caucus is paying attention to outstate interests because 10 of the 11 seats the House won back from Democrats were from outstate Minnesota. Twin Cities suburban Republican interests have, for once possibly, not received an undue amount of attention.

Republicans see that the good policies for outstate Minnesota will translate to good politics. That idea may have been a long time coming, but it appears to be here.


St. Cloud Times, Jan. 20

Black Lives Matter, so let’s start talking

The massive Black Lives Matter Minneapolis march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the Twin Cities certainly makes an impressive statement about the grassroots desire to create the country King himself championed for decades.

Quite honestly, while celebrations and public service are commendable objectives on MLK Day, thousands of people coming together to march, demonstrate and demand changes at the local, state and national levels is a refreshing reminder of why this day - and King - are so important to this country.

To really embrace change, though, advocates of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis as well as community leaders need to engage in serious discussions about solutions to the reasons at least 2,000 people marched Monday, not to mention the hundreds who protested in December at the Mall of America.

The core motivation for Black Lives Matter Minneapolis - and these two protests - is the participants’ belief that police are mistreating people based on race. Similarly, the national Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2012 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, is to expand “the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.”

Make no mistake. Those are deeply troubling and very serious messages.

To get at the causes of them - and build potential solutions - is going to take much more than marches and demonstrations. It’s going to take people from all sides of these issues sitting down and talking through some difficult differences so that they can begin to find ways to affect the changes desired.

But if those conversations do not occur, if people who disagree continue to talk only to themselves and not each other, about the only outcome might be more people attending the next Black Lives Matter Minneapolis march.

Again, it can’t be stressed enough: These conversations will be difficult.

But it’s time to have them. It’s time for community leaders, advocates of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, police and others with vested interests in solutions to step up and talk publicly with each other as they begin to search for reasonable solutions.

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