Tuition for University of Minnesota graduate and professional students ranks in the middle to high range compared with the University of California-Berkeley, Penn State and other "peer" institutions. The price that in-state dentistry students pay tops the list. The average U medical student graduated with $137,268 in debt from that degree alone in 2008.

Those sticker-shock stats -- and the fact that few students pay sticker price -- are part of a complicated picture of the way nearly 20,000 graduate and professional students at the U fund their degrees.

The new data were presented to the U's Board of Regents Thursday.

Among the findings: The U provides more than double the support to graduate students that it does to undergrads, in the form of scholarships, fellowships and jobs. Many graduate students receive either aid or academic appointments from the U. Very few Ph.D. students pay even close to full tuition.

Graduate and professional students got support from a few regents in raising alarms earlier this year when undergrad tuition hikes were kept to a few percentage points, but theirs were not. Administrators promised numbers about how these students fund their degrees.

"The more I learn, the less I know, I think," said Regent John Frobenius after looking at the pricing, deductions and comparisons for graduate and professional programs.

Frobenius had expressed deep concern about tuition hikes for graduate and professional students last spring, and eventually voted against the budget when his motion to reduce the increases failed. He joined other regents Thursday in emphasizing how important it is that the university keep tuition for these students affordable and competitive -- yet high enough to maintain quality.

"The programs described in these documents are the unique mission of the University of Minnesota," he said. "If we don't do this superbly well, the state of Minnesota will suffer drastically."

About 92 percent of new Ph.D. students and 75 percent of all Ph.D. students work as graduate assistants. Only 11.6 percent of them take out loans.

Kate Raach, a third-year graduate student in cosmology, knew when she chose the U that her education would be paid for. The School of Physics and Astronomy fully funds nearly all of its graduate students through a teaching or research assistantship or fellowship.

Raach also gets a $20,000 stipend per year, which is "enough to live on," she said and even to pay back some of her loans from her undergraduate degree at the U. "Of course, I don't have some extravagant lifestyle."

On the other end of the spectrum are medical students, who are in a year-round program that allows them little to no time for employment.

About 800 students are enrolled in the university's M.D. program, which last year cost in-state students $32,360 in tuition and fees -- the second-highest among the university's 11 comparable institutions that offer degrees in medicine. The University of Wisconsin charged $23,102 for its residents last year.

At their meeting Thursday, regents discussed how that much debt affects students' career choices.

"If people are driven to high-end procedures and fields because they can pay off their debt and live, that drives up the cost of health care," said Regent Dr. Patricia Simmons, calling it an issue "we can help the state and the nation try to address."

The report also emphasizes that some programs are particularly expensive to run, and students are asked to pay a small portion of that cost.

"Medicine is a case in point," the report reads. "Tuition for M.D. students is higher than for most other programs, but the tuition that M.D. students pay covers a smaller percentage of the cost of their education (i.e., less than 25 percent) ..."

Provost Tom Sullivan pointed out that tuition also sends a message to prospective students about the quality of a program.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168