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Larry Pogemiller: Dayton's budget supports prosperous, well-educated citizenry

ST. PAUL -- In his State of the State address, Governor Mark Dayton challenged Minnesotans to consider not only what is right for Minnesota today, but also what is right for Minnesota in the future. Focusing on our shared goals, he said, helps us find greater accord on how to best achieve them.

A highly educated workforce is a goal Minnesotans have shared for decades. Working together, previous generations of Minnesotans made strong investments in higher education, creating a world-class post-secondary infrastructure in Minnesota.

Today, most Minnesotans would agree that our education has been fundamental to our economic prosperity, and that our future economic success rests in part on our continued commitment to a strong and affordable higher education system. That is exactly what Governor Dayton’s budget would help deliver.

Investments in higher education have never been more important. Minnesota’s economy is changing, presenting our workforce with new challenges. In fact, our state’s changing demographics indicate a rapidly approaching worker shortage, making it increasingly important for growing numbers of Minnesotans to have access to a quality, affordable post-secondary education.

But deep cuts in higher education and financial aid have put the dream of a higher education out of reach for too many Minnesotans. Our state currently spends $569 million less on higher education than we did 16 year ago. Postsecondary institutions have increasingly relied on tuition revenue to cover their costs and state grants have not kept up. Students and their families have turned more and more to borrowing.

Over the past decade, tuition and fees have increased by more than three times the rate of inflation and family income. We have the third-highest student debt rate in the country for a bachelor’s degree, with the average Minnesota student graduating nearly $30,000 in debt.  Debt of this magnitude stays with people for years, limiting their education and economic opportunities for the future.

Finding a way to maintain quality at our postsecondary institutions while curtailing student debt is one of the most pressing policy issues facing our state. Ensuring a higher education is affordable for nearly every Minnesotan will require a combination of cost-containment by institutions, and public investment in students.

Governor Dayton is proposing a significant $240 million investment for higher education, the largest percentage increase for any area of the state budget. He balances that investment by strengthening support for MnSCU and the University of Minnesota, as well as putting money directly into the hands of students and families to help them attain the postsecondary education that best fits their aspirations.

The governor recommends investing $80 million in the Minnesota State Grant program – the largest increase in over 25 years. This new funding would extend state grants to over 5,000 additional students and help thousands of middle class families who didn’t qualify for assistance before. Over 100,000 Minnesota students with a state grant would see an increase in their financial aid award, averaging $300, to help meet the cost of rising tuition.

Governor Dayton’s recommended $80 million investment for the University of Minnesota will support research, quality and affordability. Workforce development supported by internships and apprenticeships, state of the art equipment and high-quality faculty across the MnSCU system garners another $80 million investment.

This balance of support for both the public and private benefit of post-secondary education and training is crucial and timely. Business leaders, economists and students are voicing support for the high priority Governor Dayton has placed on post-secondary education.

Minnesota needs educated workers for a strong and vibrant economic future, and Minnesota students need help paying the high cost of a postsecondary education. Our democracy needs a prosperous, well-educated citizenry to prosper and meet the challenges of our world. That is exactly what Governor Dayton’s balanced budget proposal would deliver.

Larry Pogemiller is the director of Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education.