University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler faced some tough questions from legislators Wednesday about his plan to freeze tuition at the U.
Not about whether to do it, but how to pay for it.
Kaler is asking state lawmakers to come up with $65.2 million to cover the cost of a two-year tuition freeze, which he said would benefit some 53,000 students.
But at a House committee hearing, members on both sides of the aisle wondered aloud why the university can’t cut expenses and pass on the savings to students.
“I think tuition should be reduced, that’s my goal,” said Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom. He noted that Kaler announced he had cut $36 million in administrative costs in the past two years. “Why hasn’t that money been redistributed to lower tuition?”
Kaler, who was testifying at the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, said his “highest priority” is freezing tuition for state residents. But he said that the money saved in administrative costs has been reinvested in other programs, and that the university needs more funds to avoid raising tuition.
“My philosophy on tuition is about making the university as affordable and accessible for the best students in Minnesota as we could possibly be,” he said.
But Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, challenged Kaler’s assertion. “I thought tuition, and freezing tuition, was your highest priority,” he said. “You have priorities above that?”
“We do a lot of things at the University of Minnesota, and we think all of them are of value,” Kaler replied. “We’re not all about making tuition as low as possible at the expense of [everything else].”
Two years ago, the university froze undergraduate tuition in exchange for a $42 million increase from the Legislature. This year, Gov. Mark Dayton has recommended that the state fund only half the tuition request.
In all, the U is requesting a $148 million increase in state funds, for a total state appropriation of $1.3 billion over the next two years. In addition to the tuition freeze, Kaler said the extra money would be used for other critical projects, such as bolstering research for the mining industry and training rural health professionals.
Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, asked point-blank what Kaler would do if the university doesn’t get all the money it’s seeking. “Will you have to increase tuition?”
Kaler declined to make a commitment. If the funding falls short, he said, “we would scale back and do what we could.” He acknowledged that the university’s funding request was, in his word, aggressive. “We will freeze tuition to the greatest degree we can with the appropriation that you give us,” he said. “If that meant altering the amount of money in other buckets to pay to freeze tuition, that would be my priority.”