Higher Education Needs Communities' Support, Legislative Funding

As I begin my final year as president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, I marvel at the work of our faculty and staff to make an MSUM education accessible and affordable for all students. Last year, we revamped our scholarship program to offer larger automatic scholarships for incoming students, up to $14,000 over four years. We’ve removed our ACT requirement, allowing students to be admitted to MSUM based on their academic achievement in high school. And we’ll begin offering in-state tuition for everyone beginning in Fall 2023.

And yet, the cost of tuition is still a significant barrier for students who aspire to attend college. Even a small tuition increase can mean the difference between students attending or putting their college plans on hold. That’s why one of our core commitments is delivering to students, employers, communities and taxpayers the highest value and most affordable higher education option.

Unfortunately, this has been increasingly difficult in recent years. Since 1995, the share of Minnesota’s general fund budget committed to higher education has fallen by nearly half (47%). Despite repeated requests to the Legislature that would allow us to avoid tuition increases, the needed funding has not been forthcoming. In the most recent session, the supplemental budget request Minnesota State submitted to the Legislature included $25 million to fund an undergraduate tuition freeze. Although the state was in the enviable position of a $9 billion budget surplus, the session ended without additional funding for higher education.

This was the context in which Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and Board of Trustees member Jay Cowles recently visited Moorhead as part of a listening tour of the state. During the tour, they held listening sessions with local constituents to gather perspectives that will inform Minnesota State’s biennial budget request for the 2023 legislative session. They heard quite a bit from the Fargo-Moorhead leaders who attended, including leaders from Moorhead Public Schools, the Greater Fargo-Moorhead EDC, the FMWF Chamber of Commerce, and many of the major employers in our region. MSUM students and employees also attended and spoke passionately about the need for funding.

One important priority is to stabilize campus finances. About half of our operating budget comes from the tuition students pay, and the other half comes from appropriations from the Legislature. Between the pressure on enrollment we’ve been experiencing, especially since the onset of the pandemic, and the impact of inflationary increases on our operating costs, balancing the University’s budget is increasingly difficult. As a result, MSUM has had to reduce services critical to our students’ success and eliminate programs that are essential to meeting the talent needs of regional employers.

Those talent needs were discussed at length during the listening session. Many sectors of Minnesota’s economy face workforce shortages, including healthcare, social services, education, and financial services to name just a few. Minnesota’s economic recovery from the pandemic and its continued economic vitality will depend on the availability of a highly skilled and well-educated workforce. To meet this need, the colleges and universities of Minnesota State need funding to support vital academic programs.

Ultimately, our students’ success is the number one priority. This means eliminating the educational equity gaps that currently exist in our state as called for by Minnesota State’s bold goal, Equity 2030. Achieving equitable outcomes will require adequate funding for student support services as well as funding to support students’ basic needs. Students at the listening session shared poignant stories of the challenges they face in pursuing their educational aspirations and advocated strongly for increased support for student services.

In short, our internal and external constituents firmly believe in both the importance of our mission and the ability of our faculty, staff, and students to fulfill that mission if adequately funded. During the listening session, I heard strong support for the notion that the biennial budget request Minnesota State presents to the Legislature should not compromise on this mission in the least and instead should stay firmly grounded in obtaining the resources needed to deliver. Given the importance of higher education to the future we will all share, I ask for our community’s strong support of Minnesota State’s request in the 2023 legislative session.

Dr. Anne Blackhurst served as Minnesota State University Moorhead’s 11th president from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2023.

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