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Other Opinions: Boost priority of Minnesota colleges

Years of neglect have left Minnesota's bridges and highways in tough shape. That's why the Legislature not only raised the gas tax recently, but also overrode the governor's veto of the raise.

But have the years been unkind to Minnesota's higher education system, too?

Judging by the conclusions of a recent report, the answer is "yes."

The governor and Legislature commissioned the report to get feedback about the university system and boost the system's accountability.

Now that the results are coming in, the lawmakers should study those conclusions carefully and act.

"Minnesotans pay twice as much as the national average to get a public college education, but they're not getting double the results," the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

"Fewer than 40 percent of students at Minnesota's colleges and universities graduate in four years, according to a report released this week by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

"In addition, students of color have less than a 50-50 chance of graduating at all."

Furthermore, "even with a generous state grant program and other financial aid, the net cost of a public education in Minnesota is nearly twice the national average," the St. Paul Pioneer Press said of the report.

"Charges have more than doubled in a decade at the University of Minnesota and in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

"Still, the data show that even with grants and scholarships, Minnesota is an expensive place to attend a public college or university."

And the outlook for change is not good, given that Minnesota is struggling with a billion-dollar budget deficit. Pawlenty already has called for a 4 percent cut in Minnesota's higher-education subsidy.

That'll put even more pressure on tuitions, university officials say.

What should Minnesota do?

To start with, university officials should put more time and energy into raising money privately.

If the state's political leaders are smart, they'll ratchet up aid to the universities rather than cut back.

But the subsidy may never be enough to lift Minnesota's public university system into the front rank.

Private money will be needed to do that -- money that the universities' graduates have amassed over many generations.

The best private colleges and universities routinely get staggering amounts of money from their graduates. The best public colleges can and should do a better job of tapping that "giving pool" as well.

As for Pawlenty, it would help if he started talking about the state university systems with respect rather than contempt.

"If they need some help identifying where to cut, we'll be happy to make some suggestions to them starting with administration in both institutions," Pawlenty said recently.

That's no way to treat one of the most powerful economic engines of the state.

By preparing the workforce and attracting investment in medical, technology and other knowledge industries, the state colleges and universities can be a big part of the solution in Minnesota.

But that won't happen if the governor keeps dismissing them as part of the problem instead. -- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald