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Lawmakers plan to use new money to freeze tuition for two years at Minnesota universities and possibly state colleges as well, pausing what had been a steady rise in prices.
Budget bills in the Legislature represent the first boost to higher education funding in eight years, lawmakers said. The Senate bill adds $263 million, the House bill $150 million.
Both bills pay for a two-year tuition freeze for University of Minnesota’s in-state undergraduates. But the two bodies disagree on the state’s other public higher education system, the Minnesota State College and Universities (MnSCU). The House bill, passed by its higher education committee Monday, ties all new money to a tuition freeze for those students, too, while the Senate funds the system’s pitch for new programs and equipment.
“That money is going to be primarily focused on two areas — tuition and debt,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chairman of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee.
The average student loan debt for 2011 graduates totaled $29,800, according to new data from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. About 71 percent of the class of 2011 graduated with loans, the fifth biggest share of any state.
“We must change the trajectory of that,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chairwoman of the Senate’s higher education committee.
Both bills attempt to assert greater oversight of higher education’s costs. The House bans bonuses for administrators and requires more detailed reporting from the public systems. In a news conference Monday morning, Pelowski blasted the University of Minnesota for spending on administrative and athletic salaries.
The omnibus bills attack tuition’s upward climb in different ways. While the House prohibits MnSCU from raising tuition for the next two years, the Senate legislation passed last week assumes a 3 percent increase each year. The Senate puts $80 million toward the state’s need-based grant program for low- and middle-income families, while the House boosts grant funding by just $11 million.
“Tuition helps everyone,” Pelowski said. “If we’re going to selectively spend more to help a few in the grant program, we’re feeding an animal that is insatiable.”
But other leaders have argued that the grant program is better able to target students who need help — including those attending private colleges. Larry Pogemiller, director of the Office of Higher Education, recently warned a House committee not to “overestimate your ability to control price in the higher education marketplace.”
A two-year tuition freeze would save a student at the Twin Cities campus about $2,500 over four years, the U says. The tuition freezes would not apply to nonresidents or graduate students.
One freeze has some unlikely opponents: students.
This session, MnSCU’s two student associations backed a budget request that assumes two years of 3 percent tuition increases. Students at the system’s universities are “very grateful” for the House’s investment in higher education, said Moriah Miles, state chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association. But they’re concerned that freezing tuition could hurt the quality of education, said Miles, a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The group representing students at two-year colleges will consider the tuition freeze at a conference this weekend, said Steve Sabin, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association.
Budget leaders of both public higher education systems praised the House committee’s work Monday and thanked them for increased funding after years of cuts.
Laura King, MnSCU’s vice chancellor for finance, asked that the conference committee rethink language requiring the system to cover costs beyond the new state funding by cutting administration. She also called a 3 percent tuition increase “very modest.”