MN State leader seeks record $350 million funding hike despite plummeting enrollment

“Go big or go home” the saying goes, but evidently Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Devinder Malhotra believes he can do both. He’s retiring as head of Minnesota’s largest higher education system, but first, Malhotra wants state legislators to pony up a record $350 million increase in funding to turn around the alarming enrollment decline that has worsened on his six-year watch.

Enrollment in the state college and university system has plunged more than 30 percent in the last ten years with no end in sight, as the Pioneer Press observes. But Halhotra insists the only way to reverse it is to throw massive amounts of new taxpayer funding after bad.

System enrollment is projected to be down another 3.8 percent this school year and 31 percent over the last decade, and Malhotra said the system needs that money in order to start growing again.

College enrollment usually falls when the economy is strong, Malhotra said. But if fewer people are earning higher education credentials, that leaves fewer qualified candidates to meet the demands of employers.

“Declining enrollment severely curtails our ability to provide Minnesota the talent and workforce it needs, thus exacerbating the labor shortages and threatening the economic vitality of the state,” he told lawmakers last week.

Perhaps, but an increasing number of young people no longer buy into the college status quo, entering the workforce immediately or enrolling in skilled trade training programs. Businesses have noticed, adjusting their requirements and even forgoing a four-year degree for some white collar positions. Yet Malhotra makes it sound as if the main problem isn’t the product so much as customer service on campus.

And they want the state to pay for new investments in student services, which would help keep more of the students who do enroll. Roughly 30 percent of the system’s first-year students fail to come back for their second year; addressing that would be “a game-changer for enrollment,” Malhotra said.

It’s not clear what, if any, impact Malhotra’s bizarre Equity 2030 plan may have had on enrollment and student retention. American Experiment’s Kathryn Kersten described it this way.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system — our state’s largest higher education system, with 54 campuses — is embarking on a radical experiment. It is implementing a new plan, Equity 2030, that pledges to “eliminate” all academic gaps among students of different racial and ethnic groups by 2030.

Under the plan, “equity” means not fairness, but its opposite: “the proportional distribution of desirable outcomes” across demographic groups. Equity 2030 will make balancing student outcomes by skin color, not academic excellence and enhanced learning, the system’s No. 1 priority.

Regardless, Gov. Walz’s budget calls for less than half the $350 million funding increase Malhotra hopes for. But even with a bail out, it’s probably only a matter of time before his successor at Minnesota State will face tough calls like the option one state lawmaker put on the table.

Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, called Minnesota State’s enrollment declines “stunning” and suggested leaders consider closing some campuses.

“I don’t think we can invest at the level needed to accomplish the goals when we have this many campuses to spread the resources across,” she said last week.