Hoping to benefit from the state’s historic $7.7 billion budget surplus, the University of Minnesota will ask the Legislature for nearly $1 billion in funding next year.
The U’s sizeable state funding request of $935 million includes about $473 million to upgrade aging infrastructure at its five campuses, $185 million for improving campus security and sustainability, and $65 million to expand scholarship opportunities for students, among other proposals. It’s an unusually large ask that is already being met with skepticism by some state lawmakers.
“A surplus this size really is an investment opportunity for the future,” said U Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Myron Frans, who formerly served as the state’s budget commissioner. “We think these programs and suggestions can really help Minnesota in the near future.”
The largest budget surplus in state history comes as Minnesotans are earning and spending more than anticipated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers are bracing for an avalanche of spending proposals, many of them larger than usual.
Colleges statewide are looking to the Legislature to boost their funding after they suffered enrollment and revenue losses during the pandemic. The larger Minnesota State system of 30 community colleges and seven universities is seeking about $353 million from the Legislature next year — including $293 million for campus infrastructure projects and $60 million to freeze tuition for a year and pay for operational expenses.
Minnesota State spokesman Doug Anderson said the system’s board of trustees has not revised its funding request since approving it in November, before the large state budget surplus projection was revealed.
The U’s request includes $860 million in one-time investments and $75 million in annual recurring funding. The infrastructure funding portion would help renovate buildings at all U campuses and pay for the construction of a new chemistry undergraduate teaching laboratory at the Twin Cities campus.
University leaders are asking the state for $185 million to enhance security and sustainability at its campuses.
About $100 million would pay for upgrades to security cameras, building access systems, street lighting and a new 24/7 campus safety monitoring system. That funding would also allow the University of Minnesota Police Department to hire more officers to patrol the Twin Cities campus, which has grappled with high crime rates over the past year and a half.
“Students, faculty and parents are asking us to step up,” Frans said of campus security. “And we feel a need to do that.”
The U’s police department is authorized to have 61 officers but only has 54, Frans said, citing hiring and retention challenges. The university would like to increase the size of its campus police force to about 70 officers, Frans said, which is more comparable to universities in similarly sized metro areas.
Sustainability projects, which the U is seeking $85 million for, include the implementation of solar electricity generation on campus, a continued move to using electric vehicles and the installation of geothermal heating and cooling infrastructure, among other things.
Many U students could wind up receiving significantly more financial aid if the Legislature were to sign off on a $60 million request to expand scholarships.
The U is asking for a $30 million annual funding boost to its Promise scholarship program that would increase the average award for students at the lowest family income range from $4,000 to $5,300. Students moving up the income scale would also see their scholarship amounts go up, and the program’s income eligibility threshold would rise from $120,000 to $160,000.
The other $30 million would be used to create a new Greater Minnesota scholarship to attract more Minnesota resident students to the U’s Duluth, Rochester, Morris and Crookston campuses. Every Minnesota resident who attends the outstate campuses would receive a scholarship of $3,000-$4,000 in their freshman year and an additional $4,000-$5,000 spread over their sophomore through senior years.
“We believe this may be one of the best ways to increase enrollment at the other four campuses,” Frans said.
Other items in the U’s nearly $1 billion state funding request include $140 million to construct a 275,000-square-foot health research facility on the Twin Cities campus and $60 million to help build an agricultural research and education complex that would be used by both the U and Minnesota State college systems.
House Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, praised the university’s “bold vision” for the future but said it’s unlikely it will receive everything it’s asking for.
“It’s visionary and it does set a framework to evaluate,” Bernardy said. She added that lawmakers should make higher education a top funding priority next year as the state grapples with a shortage of trained workers.
State Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, said he is supportive of funding new scholarships and improvements to campus security, including hiring more police officers. But Rarick, vice chairman of the Senate’s higher education committee, said he will also want to scrutinize how much the university is paying its administrators after President Joan Gabel was awarded a big pay raise amid objections from students, staff and faculty.
Rarick, too, said funding for colleges could play a key role in addressing the state’s current workforce shortage. But the U will have tough competition in that area as the Minnesota State system, with all its community and technical colleges, may be better positioned to produce skilled trade workers, he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussions around that. How do we best allocate dollars towards that workforce training?” Rarick said.
Frans urged lawmakers to better invest in both college systems since state support for higher education has not kept pace with inflation since the 2008 recession. In 2008, the university’s annual state appropriation was $708 million. This year, it was $713 million, Frans said, noting the sum has far less purchasing power now than it did then.
“I think the case can be made quite convincingly, both for Minnesota State and the University of Minnesota, that the state can and I think should increase the amount of dollars given to those two systems,” Frans said.