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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

State Colleges Prepare for Budget Cuts

Colleges across Minnesota are preparing for state budget cuts of at least 10 percent, and that number could grow, if the state's projected $4.8 billion budget deficit balloons in the next state economic forecast out tomorrow.

by Ambar Espinoza - Minnesota Public Radio

March 02, 2009

MPR photo/Tim Post
St. Cloud State University. (MPR photo/Tim Post)

St. Cloud, Minn. — At St. Cloud State University, nearly 100 students fill a chemistry class, working in small groups.

Over the last five years, the chemistry department has grown nearly 50 percent, as the school added a nursing programs and more students signed up for chemistry classes.

Yet during that same period, the department's budget has grown less than 15 percent. The department is trying to keep up with demand by hiring teaching assistants.

According to Dan Gregory, it's working. Gregory is the department chair and he also sits on St. Cloud State's budget advisory group. Gregory worries about what state budget cuts will mean for his department.

"One of the problems that we're going to have with the chemistry (department), is because we have grown over the last five years, we're really what we consider at peak efficiency. And any more cuts we're going to absorb on our programs really is going to result in us having to do cuts we don't want to make, where we know it's not going to be best for students," he said.

Gregory says he sees first-generation college students juggling multiple jobs and a full-time class schedule. He says many worry about how they will make ends meet if tuition goes up.

St. Cloud State University already lost $1.6 million when Gov. Pawlenty used his budget-cutting authority late last year.

An official with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System says the unallotment cuts were the same across the board for all MnSCU schools; but SCSU has more flexibility in what it can trim because it's larger than the other campuses, with nearly 17,000 students.

Earl Potter
St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter (MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza)

University President Earl Potter says up until now, the school has been able to manage that cut without great pain.

"We're looking at cutting about $11 million in each of the two years of the biennium, and that is going to be harder to accomplish," he said.

Potter said the university's summer school program won't expand to accommodate new students, classes will get bigger, and the university will also slow down new initiatives and programs that require money upfront.

"As we make adjustments and cuts, there will be pain, we will not be able to do some things as well as we might, we will not offer as much service as our students need," Potter said.

Yet despite the challenges, Potter remains optimistic the university will get through this.

"This community will stay strong and we'll continue to look towards the future," he said. "We're doing strategic planning and action planning. We're planning new programs, which we won't be able to do until we have the money, but we're still planning now."

Potter said one encouraging sign is that the faculty union resolved its contract early. The contract included no raises for faculty.

Glen Palm, a professor of child and family studies, said he's seen many contract negotiations in his 25 years at SCSU, and this one was different.

"Our own contracts and thinking about trying to get an increase in salary fades away as unimportant, in the context of people probably in some cases losing their jobs on campus," Palm said. "I think it's a smart move on the union's part, and I think it's good for both the faculty and for the administration and the state, so we can all move on and figure out how to make some even tougher decisions."

Those decisions could mean switching classes around or even canceling them.

Palm said he's worried that will slow down students who have their academic paths mapped out already. He also worries his small department could get eliminated altogether.

Becky Krystyniak
Becky Krystyniak, a chemistry professor at St. Cloud State University, spearheaded the "learning assistant model" at SCSU's chemistry department where students, usually upperclassmen, help the professors teach class material through one-on-one instruction or in groups. This model has been successful at the University of Colorado in Boulder. (MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza)

University professors says it's easy for outsiders to see higher education as a money drain.

It's about 10 percent of the state budget, but they argue they're educating the future workforce, which is critical for the state to emerge from its economic slump.