BEMIDJI — As part of their biennial budget listening session tour, representatives from the Minnesota State System of Colleges and Universities had a stop at Bemidji State's American Indian Resource Center on Thursday.
Amongst a room filled with community leaders, campus stakeholders and students alike, the session was a chance for system leaders to engage with Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College on key initiatives to inform the system’s biennial budget request to the state legislature for the 2024-2025 fiscal year.
“Our challenge is to position ourselves so that we can become the catalyst to provide affordable, accessible and equitable education,” Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said. “In order to do that, we have to ask the tough questions, whether we have the capacity. And if we need to build the capacity, what are the strategic investments that are needed?”
Much discussion revolved around the system’s three priorities: workforce and economic development, student success and equity, and Minnesota State stabilization.
Bill Maki, vice chancellor for finance and facilities, said stabilization is the most important priority because it covers operating cost increases due to inflation. He noted that 75% of the system’s expenses are compensation-related and that non-compensation expenses have skyrocketed.
“Everybody’s feeling inflation right now,” Maki said. “Utilities, travel, supplies at the technical college, those prices have increased significantly. We need operating funds just to be able to do these things.”
Maki also pointed to the relationship between state appropriation and tuition costs, and the fact that technical colleges are typically funded more by appropriation while universities are more tuition-funded.
For the 2021 fiscal year, BSU’s state appropriation covered just over 40% of its costs while the remaining 60% was funded via tuition.
On the flip side, NTC’s state appropriation covered nearly 60% of its costs with 40% supported by tuition.
“Much of that goes back to the history of the merger. You see more of an immediate effect of tuition revenue when you’re growing (in enrollment) and when you’re declining at a state university,” Maki said. “Appropriation is generally a more stable resource.”
BSU Philosophy Professor Dennis Lunt views stabilization and the priority of student success and equity as going hand in hand, stating that an unstable campus is an inequitable campus.
“What I hope comes through our budgetary ask is the truly dire situation we’re in. Our ability to provide addiction resources, nurses and teachers to an area that’s struggling, lives and dies with this budget,” Lunt said.
Ward 4 Bemidji City Councilor Emelie Rivera observed an interplay between student recruitment with housing and transportation throughout the broader community.
“Those pieces of equity are really important in keeping students here, to encourage them to be here,” Rivera said. “I would really encourage the systems to work with those municipalities to advocate and lobby for these clean water issues, sustainability issues and equity issues.”
Noting decreased enrollment at BSU, Student Senate President Kendra Draeger addressed tuition costs as being a barrier preventing students from enrolling in classes.
Following a tuition freeze in 2019, Minnesota State colleges and universities have seen 3% tuition increases each year since the 2020 fiscal year.
“I chose to come to BSU because it’s a smaller community. I couldn’t afford to go to a bigger school, and at the time, BSU offered the lowest tuition,” Draeger said. “At the same time, you have students who might be in a worse situation than I am, students who come from low-income backgrounds and first-generation students.”
AIRC Executive Director Chrissy Downwind spoke on behalf of American Indian enrollment — noting around 400 Indigenous students attending BSU a year — and the possibility of a tuition waiver for those students similar to a University of Minnesota tuition assistance program.
“Being at an institution that’s sitting on seeded land within 60 miles of more than 70% of the American Indian population in the state, I feel it is only a move that could benefit us as an institution and the system as a whole in order for us to figure out how we can do better, pushing forward for our American Indian students,” Downwind mentioned.
Alongside other discussions of the morning — including facilities maintenance, workforce shortages and community partnerships — Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Allen Bedford spoke to the many pieces of the puzzle that must come together so Minnesota State can fulfill its role.
“How do we take these large pieces, put them together to anticipate these community needs and collaboratively meet them?” Bedford said. “It’s possible that we, as Minnesota State, have a role to play that’s not reproducible by any other entity. We are the ones to take action and we can’t take that action alone.”
In Minnesota State’s 2022-2023 request, the system received $56.4 million of their requested $120 million. The allocation included $45 million for campus support, $3 million for equity and affordability, and $8.4 million for additional legislative-funded priorities.
The higher education percent share of the state’s general fund budget has also dropped from 12.2% in 1995 to a projected 6.5% for the 2023 fiscal year.
The Minnesota Legislature will convene on Jan. 3, 2023, to develop a two-year budget, which will include Minnesota State.