The relatively small increases - 3.6 and 4.6 percent - are part of a proposal that also shaves faculty and programs.
The nearly 280,000 students enrolled in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) are on the threshold of another increase in tuition and fees, this one coming at a time of record borrowing and continuing high unemployment for new college graduates.
MnSCU officials said this week that tuition and fees could rise by 3.6 percent, on average, at the state's public two-year schools and 4.6 percent at the system's seven universities.
Those increases are part of the system's proposed $2 billion operating budget for 2012-13, which also cuts or shrinks about 500 programs and 525 positions to grapple with a "historic loss of state support," the budget says. State funding of $545.4 million is the lowest since 1998.
"We have really focused on affordability in the wake of what is a very challenging budget situation -- zero new support from the state," said Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.
But any tuition increase pushes on a public weary of the ever- climbing cost of higher education.
Amanda Bardonner, state chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association, thanked the university presidents on Wednesday for "making a conscious effort to keep tuition increases down." But, she continued, "tuition increases, no matter the amount, impact the affordability to students and the ability to complete their degrees."
Under this budget, tuition and fees at the two-year colleges would rise an average of $187, bringing the annual bill to $5,355. At the universities, they would grow by $320, for a total of $7,346.
The combined average 3.9 percent increase -- referring to tuition only -- is low compared with the past 10 years, but is similar in scale to increases planned by the separate University of Minnesota system, where in-state tuition for undergraduates could climb 3.5 percent, and the 17 nonprofit colleges in the Minnesota Private College Council, which are planning an average raise of 4.5 percent.
MnSCU's Board of Trustees requested more information about the proposed budget in meetings this week and will vote on it in June.
'A lot of money'
About 279,300 students take courses for credit within the MnSCU system, which encompasses seven universities and 24 two-year community and technical colleges -- including St. Paul College and Dakota County Technical College.
Claire Grudt works as a part-time nanny while studying early childhood education at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, which caters to adults. The proposed tuition increase, which would add about $300 to her yearly bill, would strain finances for her and her fiancé, who is taking more-expensive graduate courses at the university.
"Most of us work while we're here," she said. "So $300 for a working person, that's a lot of money -- particularly right now in this economy, when so many people are underemployed."
Grudt, 35, has an associate's degree but returned to school to get a bachelor's after noticing more jobs in day care requiring four years of college. Despite federal grants, she has taken out more than $8,000 in loans since starting a semester ago. Now, with tuition rising and the possibility of interest rates on federal loans doubling, she's worried.
"It took me a long time to come back to get my bachelor's degree," she said. "And I'm like, 'Wow, I picked the exact wrong time to do that.'"
On each campus, presidents have been consulting with student leaders about tuition increases. Sometimes, a president would lay out higher and lower tuition increases, explaining the ramifications of each, Bardonner told the Board of Trustees on Wednesday.
In at least one instance, she said, students supported the bigger bump because it would mean fewer cuts in faculty and programs.
"Student leaders greatly appreciated the transparency of the budget process," Bardonner said, "and were invested in the end decision."
The Minnesota State University Student Association surveyed students last year about how the growing costs have affected them. Of the 360 students who responded, 64 percent said that they are borrowing more than they had expected. About 33 percent said they were concerned they would be unable to afford to finish their degree. And 12 percent said they had taken time off from school to work.
Students borrowing more
Minnesota students are among the most indebted.
Those who graduated in 2010 and borrowed had an average of $29,058 in student loan debt -- the fourth-highest average in the country, according to an annual report by the Project on Student Debt. Minnesota also ranked fifth in the proportion of students with debt, at 71 percent. Those numbers include students at nonprofit private colleges but not students at for-profit schools.
Another measure, by the Chronicle of Higher Education, marks the state's two-year schools as the nation's third most expensive, a fact two-year student leaders often flag for legislators and MnSCU's Board of Trustees.
"What we've seen is that tuition has more than doubled this decade," said Geoff Dittberner, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association. "Increases have far outpaced the rate of inflation. It's a trend we'd like to see reversed and curtailed."
Last year, the Legislature capped tuition increases at the two-year community and technical colleges at 4 percent for the coming school year. So when the average increase came in below that, students were "really happy to see that," Dittberner said.
Tuition now makes up 60.9 percent of the revenue in that budget, while state funding accounts for 39.1 percent. That's a flip from 10 years ago.
The cost of educating a MnSCU student has actually fallen, when adjusted for inflation, according to the proposed budget. Campuses have become more efficient, lowering the cost of educating a student to $7,107 in 2011, a 10 percent reduction since 2000, after adjusting for inflation.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168