As a graduate of the University of Minnesota and a member of the Higher Education Committee in the Minnesota House, I would like to extend my appreciation to university President Eric Kaler and the members of the Board of Regents for their commitment to higher education. Though we may disagree on various points, I appreciate the opportunity to engage in the conversation on tuition, most recently continued in the June 28 Star Tribune editorial “The right tuition plan for a talent magnet.”

I’d like to address a few points from that editorial. Toward the end, it states that “bringing more students from outside … [is] helping to secure the prosperity of the state where a majority of them will work and live for decades to come.”

I have not seen data that support that claim, yet I think the desire to attract out-of-state talent must be balanced with welcoming in-state residents. Minnesota high school students consistently rank among the best-educated in the nation. We can address the impending workforce shortage by making tuition more affordable for them and keeping them in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, we seem to be struggling with this. A report issued in January by the Minnesota State Demographic Center found that 21,000 young adults move to Minnesota each year to attend college or graduate school, but a greater number of Minnesota high school students, 29,000, leave the state each year to attend college elsewhere.

Considering their families are funding the university with their hard-earned tax dollars — the U is set to receive approximately $1.2 billion from Minnesota taxpayers this coming biennium — I believe it is important to offer a more equitable rate of tuition to our own students.

This belief is part of why freezing tuition for in-state residents is my — and several of my colleagues’ — No. 1 priority for the university. However, when we asked repeatedly if reducing tuition was the U’s No. 1 priority throughout our many committee hearings, the response was consistently that it was among the top priorities — but not No. 1.

It was also difficult to come to an agreement on the amount needed for a tuition freeze. When asked for more information on the budgeting system, university officials informed members of the Higher Education Committee that the system is complicated (which it is).

If freezing tuition is simply one of the U’s top priorities, the school could request any amount — be it $65 million or $650 million — and say it needs that much to freeze tuition. Furthermore, the “needs” appeared to be determined by the status quo vs. innovative budgeting ideas and solutions.

Indeed, after many conversations with university officials and others at the Legislature, I believe the U could enact more cost-savings measures to help reduce tuition and attract more students. For instance, one approach could be freezing the salaries and fringe benefits of top-paid employees — such as the head football coach, whose latest contract guarantees him an increase from $1.2 million to at least $2.2 million for 2015 (in base salary, retirement plan contributions and supplemental compensation).

Now, please don’t misunderstand me; I think the coach probably does a great job — but it strikes me as ironic that we are increasing the salary of a U employee by $1 million and yet “cannot” freeze tuition. (Also, though the salary of the coach is funded from various pools, the whole system works together in many ways — as I have been learning, it’s complicated.) This is just one of many examples that could help trim the edges off the budget and freeze — or even reduce — tuition.

My colleagues and I would be happy to brainstorm ideas with anyone willing to engage in this discussion. Our No. 1 priority is ensuring that tuition at the university remains affordable for Minnesota students and their families.

 

Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, is a member of the Minnesota House.