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Massive cuts to higher ed would prove costly

Minnesota could go a long way toward balancing its books by stopping all direct public funding for the Department of Natural Resources. In the current fiscal year, the general fund is contributing $222 million to the DNR — one-fourth of its total budget.

Sure, we'd still need conservation officers to enforce the game and fish laws, so the price of fishing licenses and hunting licenses would skyrocket. We'd still need at least a handful of rangers to keep things from getting totally out of hand at state parks, so the cost of an annual park permit would soar. Fewer people would fish and camp, so the DNR could stop maintaining public boat ramps and parking lots. It also could sell off those publicly-owned wilderness parcels where Minnesotans have camped for decades. Think about it: Whitewater State Park could fetch a fortune from developers eager to build million-dollar homes on 10-acre lots with spectacular views.

Absurd, you say? Of course it's absurd. Part of what makes Minnesota great is its outdoor heritage. We willingly spend our taxpayer dollars to protect that heritage for ourselves, our children and their children.

But we'd argue that the idea described above is only slightly more alarming than a Republican plan to cut $411 million from the state's higher education budget over the next two years, while also placing caps on tuition increases.

We won't deny that from a strictly bottom-line standpoint, Minnesota's state college and university system loses money on every student who enrolls. We all pay that tab. Even if you never attend college, or if your family has a long tradition of attending St. Olaf, Carleton or another private college, your tax dollars still subsidize the education of students at state schools.

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We are willing to foot that bill, however, because the whole concept of state-funded higher education is based on the idea that our best and brightest high school graduates should have the opportunity to earn a high-value college degree, regardless of whether their parents are wealthy. A degree from the U of M, Winona State, the University of Minnesota Rochester or RCTC is a relatively affordable stepping stone to a brighter future.

But an 11 percent cut in total funding for state-run institutes of higher learning would be devastating, especially when paired with caps on tuition increases. Budget reductions on that scale would force the elimination of entire academic programs. Minnesota would lose its ability to recruit and pay top-notch professors and researchers from around the world, which would have a direct impact on the quality of education our students receive.

Sure, we'd still have a U of M. RCTC wouldn't close, and St. Cloud State wouldn't be forced to sell  parts of its campus. But once we begin sacrificing quality for short-term savings, the snowball will start gaining momentum. As students and families face the prospect of paying more for less, our best and brightest 17-year-olds — the ones who have plenty of college options — would go elsewhere to earn their college degrees.

Minnesota can't afford to let that happen. We talk a lot about how our public K-12 educational system will is crucial in the training of tomorrow's work force, but without great public colleges and universities to complete that training, brain drain would be inevitable.

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