In the past, students had focused on more funding for higher education. Now, they say, they are being priced out of school.
Several hundred MnSCU students walked past St. Paul College and then rallied on the Capitol steps Wednesday. Among them was Matthew McGregor, middle, of Lake Superior College. “Tuition is a tax!” the crowd shouted. “Keep it off our backs!”
On the Capitol steps Wednesday, a new refrain was added to the annual student chorus of concerns over tuition.
"What do we want?" the leader shouted. "Tuition cap!" the crowd of 400 roared back. "When do we want it?" "Now!"
For the first time, students of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) are openly asking the Legislature to mandate a limit on tuition increases at their two- and four-year schools.
Many wore red hats embroidered with the word "tuition" -- tuition caps.
"Our students have asked us to ask you for help," Travis Johnson, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association, told a legislative committee later in the day. "We can no longer afford to ask our students, our future, to continue to shoulder more than their fair share."
That's a newly aggressive strategy for the student groups, which in the past have focused lobbying on funding higher education.
The message might hit at the right moment, politically. Last week, Republican state senators introduced a bill to freeze tuition at Minnesota's public colleges and universities -- then forever limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation.
Although student leaders are pushing a tuition cap, they don't endorse a tuition freeze.
An outright freeze could hurt educational quality, they said, and students are willing to be "part of the solution." They pointed out that MnSCU has become more efficient and now educates more students with less state funding.
Still, when Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, touted the tuition freeze at the rally on Wednesday, students cheered. Carlson promised that the Legislature would "put a lot of pressure" on MnSCU administrators "to cut administrative expenses, save our programs and not balance the budget on your backs."
Holding red "S.T.O.P." signs -- Student Tuition is OverPriced -- the crowd marched from St. Paul College up John Ireland Boulevard to the steps of the Capitol.
"Tuition is a tax!" the crowd shouted. "Keep it off our backs!"
Schools don't want limit
The idea of a tuition limit stirs tensions about who's in charge of the public MnSCU system, which includes 32 colleges and universities and serves more than 277,000 students in credit-based courses.
MnSCU opposes the Legislature mandating a cap for the same reason it opposes it mandating a tuition freeze: There's a 15-member Board of Trustees to set tuition. That board wants to keep students' costs to a minimum, MnSCU says, and tries to do so while also weighing concerns about the quality of education and the workforce needs of the state.
During 2001-02, annual tuition and fees for the average MnSCU community college student were $2,759. This year, they're $4,984.
Last year's average tuition and fees at those community colleges ranked third-highest in the nation when compared with similar institutions, according to an annual report by the Higher Education Coordinating Board in Washington, D.C.
Students worry that if the Legislature dramatically cuts state funding, they could see double-digit tuition increases like those earlier this decade.
"We do not want to go down that path again," said Andrew Spaeth, state chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association. "Students want to be part of the solution, but we cannot be the only solution."
Falling state funding is part of what has led to tuition increases. MnSCU's state funding -- measured per full-time student -- dropped by 16 percent between fiscal years 2000 and 2010. Adjusted for inflation, the drop grows to 37 percent.
In a hearing on the bill to freeze tuition, legislators debated whether the key to reducing tuition would be the state raising its funding or MnSCU cutting its spending.
Melissa Seidenstricker, 22, works 60 hours a week as the property manager for six apartment complexes near Central Lakes College's Brainerd campus, where she also attends school.
Through her job, she sees a lot of students come for the first semester -- then drop out. "They leave," she said, "because they can't make it. They can't afford everything."
Seidenstricker herself pays almost $4,700 in tuition, fees and books each semester. Then there's rent, cell phone bills, car insurance and food.
"For a community college, you'd think tuition would be cheaper," she said. "It's hard."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168