Looking deeper into the Pioneer’s budget editorial

Last week, a Minnesota state senator from Bemidji named John Carlson introduced a bill that would force the state’s public colleges and universities to freeze tuition at 2010-11 rates for two years, and after those two years install a hard cap that would allow schools to raise tuition by an amount no higher than the rate of inflation.

Over the weekend, the Bemidji Pioneer ran an opinion by its editorial board on Carlson’s bill. You can read the entire editorial here.

Toward the end, the editorial says this:

The state at one time paid about two-thirds of the cost of a student to attend public college and the student a third in tuition. Today, the state’s share is in the 40-plus percentage. Sen. Carlson would like to see that exceed 50 percent, perhaps even reach 60 percent, but it won’t be with a flush of new money.

Carlson is playing a tricky game with math here. Based on this quote, he seems to be advocating for an increase in state funding to state colleges and universities.

Based on the bill he’s proposing and his stated intention that schools “deal with their administrative costs,” here’s what Carlson really wants to see.

To make the math easier to follow, let’s say Bemidji State University has an annual budget of $50 million (which is close). If the state appropriation to our budget is approximately 40 percent, that’s $20 million. Carlson does not want to see the $20 million grow to $30 million and become 60 percent of $50 million. He wants to see the $50 million budget obliterated to around $33.3 million, and have the same $20 million appropriation become 60 percent of what’s left over. Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College are eliminating 50 positions to deal with a $5 million budget reduction; it’s not a guarantee that the University could even survive the 30-percent budget-reduction apocalypse it would take to make this math trick work.

This percentages trick Carlson is playing would allow the state legislature to say “hey, state appropriation to higher ed used to make up 40 percent of a school’s budget; now it’s up to 60% of the budget!” all while the schools are taking enormous budget cuts — and no ability to compensate by increasing tuition, if his bill were to pass. The state wouldn’t be contributing a larger slice of the pie; they’d be contributing the same amount to a grotesquely smaller pie, while using a math trick to claim they’re doing more to help.

This is a dirty trick being played with percentages, and it’s disappointing that the Pioneer’s editorial board let that slide. They seem to get it by adding the “it won’t be with a flush of new money” tag at the end of that sentence, but the editorial still leaves the true meaning of the percentage increase quite unclear.

Andy Bartlett

By day, I am the executive director of communications and marketing at Bemidji State University. The rest of the time, I'm a husband, father of three, and proponent of super heroes, lasers, space ships and explosions.

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