Last year, only one budget bill made it to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk during regular session: the higher-education budget bill.

That bill, however, fell far short of the investments that the state’s two higher-ed systems had asked for. It contained $150 million in new funding, split between the state Office of Higher Education, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State.

The university secured $43.5 million of its request for an $87 million increase in funding over the previous biennium. Minnesota State got $81.5 million — including just $8 million toward a new student data system — of its $246 million request. And the state higher education office got an additional $25 million, with a large portion earmarked for the state grant program targeted to low-income college students who attend both public and private institutions.

Heading into the 2020 session of the Legislature — a bonding year — the U’s president, Joan Gabel, and Minnesota’s State’s chancellor, Devinder Malhotra, are asking the state to address a backlog of maintenance projects on campuses in both systems that’s grown to $7.1 billion over the last decade.

In a joint op-ed published by the Star Tribune in early January, the two leaders laid out this priority, noting a failure to invest in restoring aging buildings will add “financial pressure on the state’s public colleges and universities, and ultimately, on our students.”

Gov. Tim Walz included $224 million in his capital investment recommendations for the U and nearly $264 million for Minnesota State — a combination of maintenance dollars and itemized renovation projects, including a new child development building at the U’s Twin Cities campus.

Heading into the 2020 State Legislative session, leaders of higher education committees in the House and Senate are also preparing to champion a long-overdue investment in campus facility maintenance projects.

“In my opinion, this is really important,” Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, chair of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee said. “The governor has stated this is important — and others. As we keep moving down the road, legislators have to stick with this and not allow their appetite for individual projects to cut in front.”

Building a case for a long-overdue investment

This session, the U’s capital request totals $317.2 million — for four specific projects (a chemistry lab expansion, a new clinical research facility, a new child development building and a renovation on the Duluth campus) and an infusion of dollars into the state’s Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement fund, also known as HEAPR.

Minnesota State’s request totals $271.2 million — with $150 million in HEAPR dollars flagged as the top priority as the system looks to address everything from roofs and windows in need of repair to adding efficiencies via utility upgrades. The other portion of the system’s ask encompasses funding for 15 major campus-specific capital projects.

These are the types of asks that are an easy sell at the start of session — because they infuse state dollars at campuses across the state that benefit students from all parts of Minnesota. But they’re also the types of asks that are in danger “falling off” once negotiations begin and legislators sideline them in favor of pushing through local projects, Anderson explained.

“It’s a hard sell. It’s really important. And it’s important for the U and Minnesota State to state their case and explain why these are important.”

He’s already begun touring campuses, collecting anecdotes to help win the support of his colleagues at the Capitol. So has Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee in the House.

“Just like taking care of a home, you can take care of it now or later at a much higher expense,” she said, noting the U’s nationally renowned child development program is in an “archaic” building. “That’s really important — that we get the bonding projects fully funded.”

Student protection, safety and more

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are eager to better regulate for-profit college closures, with an eye toward minimizing the impact to students.

This stems from the abrupt closure of Argosy University last spring. The for-profit college was serving about 1,000 students at its Eagan-based campus. State leaders stepped in to help them receive the state aid they’d been counting in, and to transfer to other local higher-education institutions to complete their degrees. But they don’t want to find themselves in a similar position the next time a for-profit college closes.

“A key proposal for us has been a package related to student and consumer protection,” says Dennis Olson, commissioner of the state’s higher education office, noting that will include changes to flag warning signs of a potential closure earlier on.

In other policy-related agenda items, he adds, his office is looking at setting some new goals around the FAFSA completion rate, to ensure low-income students are actually taking advantage of state financial aid available to them for college.

Anderson says he’s “not interested in a big political to-do on policy” on items lacking common ground. He will, however, continue to explore why online courses cost Minnesota State students more than in-person courses — an inquiry that “became more contentious than first anticipated” last session, he says.

In terms of following up on current investments, his committee will be looking at the success of Workforce Development Scholarships and the state grant program — a solid contender for an infusion of one-time dollars if a supplemental budget comes into play this session.

Beyond tightening up regulations to prevent a future Argosy situation, Bernardy says she’s most interested in working on issues related to campus safety and inclusivity.

On the safety piece, that means “making sure students are trained on, and very clear about, what consent is. And making sure campuses are safe for all people,” she says.

A piece of the inclusivity and equity work, she adds, entails putting programs in place to support getting more people of color and indigenous people in classrooms to teach Minnesota’s diverse student population.

Depending on what surplus dollars are included in the February budget forecast, she says a one-time investment in the Minnesota State’s new student data system, NextGen, would rank high on her list.

The tuition freeze debate will likely resurface as well. Last session, the House DFL had hoped to ward off tuition increases at the U and Minnesota State through substantial budget investment in both systems that far exceeded the investments supported by Senate Republicans.

“I’m hoping that we can move forward and make that happen,” she said.

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