University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler

Leah Millis, Star Tribune file

Kaler asks for U tuition increase

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • May 11, 2012 - 9:28 PM

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler heard thank-yous and concerns Friday about his first budget proposal and its 3.5 percent undergraduate tuition increase.

During a meeting of the Board of Regents and a public forum after it, regents and employees generally supported its proposed 2.5 percent bump in pay, which follows years of freezes. Professors praised its investments in new faculty, institutes and classrooms. Dean Tom Fisher promised three new hires in his College of Design would be "transformative."

But regents and students also expressed worry about the tuition hikes that are funding an increasing share of the U's $3.5 billion budget. Under this 2012-13 operating budget, undergraduate tuition for state residents would rise 3.5 percent, to $12,060. With fees, room and board, the total comes to $21,309.

"I am going to support this budget," said Regent Dean Johnson, "but we need to continually be mindful of the costs of higher education."

For many students, the sticker price will be softened by growing scholarships, Kaler said. The balance between keeping the university both affordable and excellent is "a very tight squeeze," he said. "While we must minimize tuition increases, we must invest in what we do."

During Friday's public forum, clerical workers argued that several years of budget cuts and shifting health care costs have disproportionately affected the university's lowest-paid workers.

Several urged Kaler and the regents to restore the Regents Scholarship Program, which once funded 100 percent of employees' tuition but required them to pay for fees and books. In 2009, regents changed that ratio. Now, the scholarship covers 90 percent of an employee's first undergraduate degree and 75 percent of a graduate degree.

Leaders of the U's clerical workers union told the regents that after that change, many employees were forced to pick between paying rent and paying tuition. They said they requested data from the university last year that show that from 2007 to 2011, the number of employees in the scholarship program dropped by 32 percent.

"The cuts in the Regents Scholarship destroyed the hopes and dreams of our members," said Amy Selvius, an employee in the Institute for Global Studies.

Kaler is "sympathetic to the concerns expressed today" and "is thinking pretty seriously" about improving the scholarship program, spokesman Chuck Tombarge said. In the coming months, Kaler will weigh higher coverage in the context of the U's total compensation and broader budget.

"We do believe the program is very generous today," Tombarge said, "but even the 25 percent ... can certainly be a burden to the university's lowest-paid employees.

Tuition makes up 24 percent of this budget's revenue, compared to 16 percent from state funding.

The incoming president of the Minnesota Student Association, Taylor Williams, thanked Kaler for proposing the lowest percentage increase to resident undergraduate this century. "It sends a clear message that higher education in the state of Minnesota must be affordable for all families," said Williams.

Several regents also lauded that undergraduate rate.

But two criticized Carlson School of Management's plan to increase in-state daytime MBA tuition by 10.4 percent, to $35,000. That compares to a 1 percent increase for nonresidents, to $45,000.

Regent Laura Brod said she rejects the argument given during a Thursday meeting that because MBA resident tuition is low, "we're seen as a regional school as opposed to a nationally acclaimed school."

"Raising tuition on local resident students to increase our profile nationally just doesn't make sense to me," Brod said. "I have a very strong concern about that tuition increase."

Kaler said leaders of the Carlson School believe the gap between its resident and nonresident rates is larger than at similar universities.

"This is an attempt to move those two rates more closely together," Kaler said, "which is a signature of our peer institutions."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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