A tuition freeze proved to be the most popular part of the University of Minnesota’s proposed budget during a pair of meetings Wednesday.

But students and members of the Board of Regents also worried that the tuition relief for in-state undergraduates might burden graduate and professional students. Others wondered whether the plan sets the university up for future problems.

President Eric Kaler fielded praise, questions and complaints about his 2014 operating budget, which spends about $61 million more than in 2013 or a 1.9 percent increase.

“I am proud of this budget,” he told the regents. “It provides enormous cost relief for our students.”

After lauding the budget for its two-year tuition freeze and more than $10 million in administrative cuts, Regent Laura Brod raised concerns about whether its new spending “could potentially eat up the freeze” in future years.

“I want to make sure that we’re preparing to assure those students they don’t have a big leap [in tuition] after the freeze is done,” she said. “And to assure the students that we are holding our spending.”

But most regents praised the plan, which they will vote on next week.

During a public forum, professors, students and staffers congratulated Kaler for persuading the Legislature to fund a two-year tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates. Taylor Williams, outgoing president of the Minnesota Student Association, said the freeze and “absence of major fee increases” will “make a difference in students’ lives.”

“It could mean less debt or perhaps even allow students to work fewer hours … and focus more on academics,” Williams said.

Several deans and professors applauded the state’s $17.8 million investment in research and promised big gains in cutting-edge fields such as neuromodulation. That funding for four research areas, which the U has dubbed MnDRIVE, will allow the university to hire 50 new faculty members and 70 graduate students, Kaler said.

Critics blast cuts, costs

But there was criticism from many of Wednesday’s two dozen speakers, a third of whom were members of AFSCME Local 3800, the union representing clerical workers. They blasted coaches’ salaries, rising health care costs and job cuts. They urged the regents to rein in administrative spending.

Many speakers also expressed misgivings about the rising price tag for graduate and professional programs.

Prof. Russell Luepker questioned proposed tuition increases for medical students, who are among the most indebted in the nation. The average debt load for 2012 graduates of the U Medical School was $174,700, more than the national average, according to an annual survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“It is not surprising these students don’t choose to practice in family medicine, psychiatry or geriatrics — specialties we are going to need badly — but instead tend to work in affluent suburbs in other specialties,” said Luepker, Mayo Professor of Public Health in the U’s School of Public Health. “Being first in tuition and student debt is not an aspirational goal.”

Prices for those in-state students would rise 2 percent to 4.7 percent, depending on the year in school.

Several regents shared that concern for professional students. Regent John Frobenius said he doesn’t understand the proposed increases for medical students and worries about the 9 percent tuition increase for first-year, resident law students. That would bring their annual tuition to $38,040.

The Law School’s leaders believe that having higher tuition, plus greater scholarships, “lets them shape a class” and maintain their national ranking, Kaler said. “I do defer to the expertise of deans of colleges.”

Legislators are clearly focused on undergraduates, Kaler added, partly because they believe graduate and professional students have more to gain from their degrees. “Frankly, there’s less political enthusiasm around the cost of graduate education.”