Poor and middle-class students make up a smaller share of the University of Minnesota's undergraduate population than a decade ago. That has student leaders worried that many Minnesotans are being priced out of the state's land-grant university.
The share of undergraduates on the Twin Cities campus from families with incomes less than $110,000 has shrunk since 2001, the university's numbers show. Meanwhile, the proportion from families making more than $110,000 a year has grown -- from 9 percent in 2001 to 23 percent in 2011.
That highest-income bracket, once the smallest, is now the biggest.
The numbers are "of gravest concern" to student representatives to the Board of Regents. Tuition increases "may be putting the University out of reach for students from lower and middle income backgrounds," they say in a report they will present to the board Friday.
U officials contend that the university has worked hard to improve access, beefing up grants and scholarships aimed at low-income students. Key measures, including the percentage of students who are the first in their families to attend college, have risen, said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.
Because the U admits students without knowing their families' income, "we have no control" over the economic makeup of the student body, he said. "We simply accept students based on the quality of their academic records."
Flagship schools across the country have been raising tuition to cover deep cuts in state funding and, as a result, most are enrolling more wealthy students, said Tom Mortenson, an Iowa-based higher education analyst.
"Underfunded flagships are acting more and more like private institutions," said Mortenson, who is also a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. "They have to go where the money is."
The student representatives looked for a simple explanation for the shift toward higher-income students. Maybe Minnesotans are making more today than a decade ago?
But data from the state demographer show that households with incomes that exceed $110,000 "still make up only 17 to 18 percent of the state's population, suggesting that 23 percent of the student body coming from these households is not fully explained by these societal trends," the report says.
Their conclusion: It's tuition. In-state tuition and fees at the Twin Cities campus exceed $13,500 this year. After adding other costs, including room and board, the total comes to almost $24,900.
U President Eric Kaler has pledged that if the state boosts the university's funding, he will freeze in-state tuition next year. The student leaders support that. But they're also hoping the regents analyze whether current costs are keeping students from attending.
"We're asking them to look into whether we're leaving certain student populations out that have previously been the main population at the University of Minnesota," said Meghan Mason, vice chair of the student representatives to the board. "What is the role of the land-grant university?"
U focused on residents
The main consequence of shifting higher education's cost from taxpayers to tuition has been that "all of the gains in bachelor's degree completion have gone to students who were born into the top half of the family income distribution," Mortenson said.
Nationally, a 24-year-old born into the top-25-percent income bracket is seven times more likely to have earned a bachelor's degree than someone born into the bottom 25 percent, his research shows.
In many ways, Minnesota does a better job than other states at educating low-income residents, according to Mortenson's numbers. The share of out-of-state students has ballooned at many universities, a July report shows. Not so at the U.
From 2000 to 2010, the share of nonresidents at the Twin Cities campus rose 1.1 percent -- less than the national average of 3.8 percent.
McMaster attributes much of the growth in higher-income students to the U's goal of becoming more selective. The average ACT composite score of undergraduates entering in 2012 was 27.7, an all-time high, the regents learned Thursday.
A decade ago, affluent families might have considered the U a safety school, McMaster said. Now, partly because of the economy, it's their top pick.
Increasing selectivity indirectly favors higher-income families who can afford to send their children to private schools and pay for tutors to help them prepare for tests, said Taylor Williams, student body president.
"I know more students in my high school who weren't able to gain admittance than I do those who had to turn it down because of the cost," he said.
Middle-class 'left out to dry'
While the share of students from the lowest income bracket dropped from 24 percent to 20 percent, the number of those students actually grew -- from about 4,200 to 5,800. That's because the number of U undergraduates swelled by almost 12,000.
Growth was concentrated in the highest-income group. The number of undergrads from families making more than $110,000 more than quadrupled -- from 1,491 in 2001 to 6,609 in 2011.
Both the share and the number of students from families making $30,000 to $75,000 dropped.
Williams was surprised that the lowest-income bracket shrank in relation to others, given the U's scholarships. His parents make less than $35,000 a year, qualifying him for federal, state and university grants that cover his tuition.
But he's not surprised that middle-income students are being "left out to dry."
He often hears about "families that are making $50,000 to $80,000, who don't receive federal or state aid but are still in a position where they have a hard time covering tuition."
Nate Schwab considered less expensive universities. But he had always looked up to the U.
"For a public university, it has a great reputation," he said. His parents, who make about $75,000 a year combined, pledged $20,000 toward his four years.
Schwab wanted to minimize debt, so he got a job. He works 40 hours a week while taking a full course load.
Because he took a semester off to save for tuition, he is three years in with just 52 credits and almost $12,000 in debt. Scholarships seem reserved for students with perfect grades, something he doesn't have time to achieve.
"There has to be a renewed focus on the people who are struggling not because of any lack of intelligence or motivation," he said, "but simply because of the circumstances they've been dealt."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna