ECM Editorial: Time to confront college affordability, tuition costs

Summer is fast coming to a close and with the change in season we transition to other nine-month routines. Many parents and students will adopt new routines — college, post-secondary education, adulthood. Some will stay home and attend schools in their area; others will move to dorms and apartments. Some will work part-time and attend college part-time.

All, however, will face one reality: With post-secondary learning comes increased cost. Many will write the largest checks of their lives, more expensive than buying a car and as costly as paying for a house. Those checks will be written several times a year for many years, and if financed through loans, the debt can last for decades.

College affordability is a critical issue. Access to quality and diverse programs of higher learning is essential to our social and economic success as a free people. Our children have to see an attainable path to the learning they need and want for the fulfillment of their lives. As a society with a free economy, attainable paths to learning are needed if our way of life is to continue.

Learning can’t be limited to those who have achieved financial and social goals; it has to be open to all. Yes, there will always be advantages to those families who have learned, achieved and feel some success but those advantages can never rise to the level of exclusion for others or the public’s belief and support for our economic, government and social systems will fail.

The many issues surrounding access and affordability to post-secondary education are presented to us daily. In the last few months we have reports of increased tuitions, budget reductions for colleges and universities, limitations to college credit courses at the high school level, proposals for cost-free college, proposals for college-to-work programs, challenges to some “for profit” programs, and for all too many, crippling long-term student debt. With all of the issues it is difficult to understand how we as community can express our opinion in addressing the issue of college affordability.

There is one reality that can give focus to the discussion of college access and cost: Minnesota relies less on taxes and more on tuition to support state colleges and universities. During ECM Editorial Board interviews with public officials regarding college affordability, particularly Gov. Mark Dayton and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, support for state institutions over the past 15 years was discussed.

Minnesota has reduced the state proportion of the “per student” support for the University of Minnesota from 70 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2016. During that same period in-state tuition and fees for a full-time student moved from $6,630 to $13,840 (constant dollars, adjusted for inflation to the CPI as reported by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education).

The history of state funding for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system presents a similar profile. In constant dollars the per-pupil funding in 2002 was $4,766 and the funding in 2015 was estimated at $3,247. Between 2002 and 2015 there were per-student state funding levels below $3,000. Tuition and fees during this same time-span (again in constant dollars) moved from $5,343 to $8,049. The relationship of tuition to state support is inversed.

Recent legislative sessions have called for increased funding and a tuition freeze at MnSCU. The long-term trend line is up for tuition and down for state funding.

A 13 to 15-year time span allows both major parties and several administrations to share in establishing the state-funding/tuition trend. The funding issues aren’t the result of an event but of a process, and we suspect for many reasons, state resources have shifted to other priorities. Certainly the financial crises of 2008 and state budget deficits were a part of the challenge but reductions pre-date the recession.

The national debate on the many facets of college costs is difficult to influence but the financial commitment of Minnesota to state institutions is under our control. We believe there is a need for a state conversation and debate on where we want to be in the financial support of public post-secondary schools. We call for a focused discussion on the level of state support and affordability of public post-secondary education for Minnesota students in Minnesota public colleges and universities.

State support for colleges is a complicated issue colored by a host of topics. We have plenty of coverage and discussion about the athletic departments, salaries for coaches, sports facilities, athletic cost accounting and recruiting costs, to say nothing about team success. There will never be an “Educational Huddle” on Sunday mornings or a daily “Education Report” between weather and traffic.

Nevertheless, how we support state colleges and how that support affects access, affordability and tuition is a serious topic that deserves a focused public debate.

State schools exist foremost for the education of our sons and daughters. We need to reaffirm that purpose by reinvigorating a public discussion of the issues centered on a student affordability and access policy. It falls to the governor and the Legislature to establish the platform for that discussion and the development of guiding principles that reflect the public will.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board

Reactions to this editorial — and to any ECM Editorial Board commentary – are always welcome. Send to: editor.sun@ecm-inc.com