The cost of college is the single most discussed issue in higher education today. Unfortunately, most of these discussions focus solely on "sticker price," fueling misconceptions about how much students pay and why.

First, it's important to understand that public universities have two main sources of money to keep the doors open and provide a quality education: state funding and tuition.

The University of Minnesota functions best when our state invests in us. But as state spending priorities shift, tuition is an essential source of predictable revenue.

Second, tuition does not equal out-of-pocket cost. Recognizing the essential role of tuition in our budget, the university supports creative strategies to reduce the burden on most Minnesota students and their families. We've done this by:

• providing free tuition to all low-income Minnesota students

• generating $256 million in private support in the past five years to endow scholarships, doubling the number we offer and the size of the awards

• reducing spending and increasing productivity to minimize increases in room and board costs

• and creating incentives -- including offering credits taken above 13 per semester for free -- to encourage timely degree completion

This last point is critical: completing a degree in four years instead of five saves approximately $20,000, and students who take longer than four years borrow more frequently and in higher amounts.

Since tuition is increasingly important to our ability to provide a world-class education, we must continue to moderate tuition increases for students with need.

The time is now to build on the progress we've made in support of low-income students, along with expanded grant support and higher education tax benefits from the federal government, to meet the needs of our state's middle-income families. Together we can work together to ensure affordable access for all Minnesota students.