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Editorial: Time to value higher education

If budgets truly are statements of values then it is clear Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton values education, including higher education, into which he proposes investing $262 million over the next two years. That would be a 10 percent increase, and it represents the largest percentage increase in the spending plan the governor has pitched to the state Legislature.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen higher education get the largest investment,” Minnesota Higher Education Director Larry Pogemiller said yesterday in an interview at the News Tribune, including with members of the editorial board. “I think that’s because of the disinvestment for so long. … We have been disinvesting at a fairly high rate.”

It’s also, no doubt, because of demographic shifts and the waves of retiring and soon-to-be-retiring Baby Boomers and the urgent need to educate the students of today and tomorrow for the multitudes of job openings expected in a few short years.

If Minnesota is going to make higher education a priority it seems to make sense to do so in an across-the-board sort of way: by pouring money into the University of Minnesota and its research, making sure it can continue to compete on a global level; into the state universities, which educate most of Minnesota’s young people and continuing learners; and into the students themselves via direct aid.

In what Pogemiller calls “a balanced approach,” Dayton’s budget calls for about $80 million for the U of M, around $80 million for direct aid to students, and about $80 million for the MnSCU state-university system.

If approved, direct aid to students will see its largest increase in 25 years. An additional 5,000 students will be able to start receiving aid while about 100,000 students will receive more aid – meaning less student-loan debt after graduation.

If approved, the state’s universities, including ours in Duluth, will be able to freeze tuition for two years, make more available the internships and apprenticeships students clamor for, and retain high-quality faculty.

Pogemiller is touring the state to talk to college students to make sure the proposed funding increases are in line with what students want. Duluth was the sixth of seven communities he’s visiting.

“With this governor you have a fairly traditional, education-is-our-future point of view,” he said. “There seems to be bipartisan support for this investment.”

Indeed, the Senate’s proposed budget includes a similar amount for higher education while the proposed House budget calls for $150 million. The Legislature will make its final financial decisions over the next seven weeks. Then we’ll find out whether lawmakers, via their statement-making budget, value education and higher education as highly as the governor.