Some members of the University of Minnesota governing board are challenging President Eric Kaler to lower tuition for Minnesotans, but others are questioning a key piece of his plan for controlling in-state tuition: a proposal to hike nonresident tuition significantly.

On Friday, U regents reviewed a five-year undergraduate enrollment and tuition plan for the Twin Cities campus, which includes the nonresident tuition proposal Kaler first unveiled in December. The plan includes goals such as modestly increasing enrollment and graduation rates, which the board mostly welcomed.

When it comes to tuition, though, the regents appeared to split into two camps: those who balked at the proposed nonresident increase and those who scoffed at a goal of keeping resident tuition increases to a minimum. Some said that goal is not ambitious enough, pointing to the higher state financial support the U receives in comparison with other Big Ten schools.

“We are far better supported than many of our peers,” said Regent Darrin Rosha. “And yet our benchmark is to be in the middle of the pack.”

After the meeting, Kaler suggested tuition for Minnesota students at the U is priced right. And when it comes to dodging a nonresident tuition increase and decreasing what Minnesotans pay, he said, “It would be a significant challenge to have it both ways.”

The regents will vote on the enrollment and tuition plan in March. The U’s other campuses also will come up with their own five-year plans.

Earlier this week, the board’s chairman and vice chairman conducted a formal midyear “check-in” on Kaler’s performance. That meeting was closed, but Chairman Dean Johnson reported Friday that he encouraged Kaler to focus more on board priorities, particularly an effort to rethink the partnership between the U’s medical operation and Fairview Health.

Kaler, who has previously received stellar reviews from the board, has had a tough year that included the departure of his athletic director amid harassment allegations.

The tuition and enrollment plan will help the U rally around a set of measurable goals for the Twin Cities campus, officials said. It calls for increasing full-time undergraduate enrollment to as many as 33,000 students, up from 30,500 now, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math and health.

The U should remain competitive, maintaining an average ACT score of 28 for its incoming classes. It should increase its four-year graduation rate to 65 percent from about 63 percent now and redouble efforts to improve graduation rates for minority and low-income students in particular.

Question of balance

The plan also calls for keeping increases to the annual $13,840 resident tuition as low as possible. But by far the most significant change under the plan would be a bid to raise the U’s out-of-state tuition from the bottom of the Big Ten pack to its middle. That would involve annual increases of $3,200 for four years, when tuition and fees would hit about $35,000 a year.

In the mid-2000s, the U cut those rates in a bid to attract more students from beyond Minnesota and its reciprocity partners. But in recent years, Kaler has been under pressure from legislators and others to raise nonresident tuition and steer more dollars toward Minnesota students.

Vice Provost Robert McMaster acknowledged Friday that despite recent successes in drawing students from states such as Illinois and California, the U is still hard-pressed to compete with peers such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Washington.

“We struggle mightily to bring students here,” McMaster said.

Some regents said they are reluctant to support the out-of-state tuition increase. Linda Cohen said she worries the U will miss out on strong candidates from other parts of the country, which enrich the experience of Minnesota students.

“I cringe a little bit by the 15 percent increase for nonresident students,” Peggy Lucas said. “I don’t think we should telegraph it as a four-year increase. That sounds scary to me.”

But other regents said they are more concerned about resident tuition that’s tough to afford for many students. Thomas Anderson said his son attends the University of North Dakota, along with many Minnesota students drawn by a sticker price that’s about $5,000 lower than what the U charges.

“It is not our job to create value for out-of-state students,” said Regent Michael Hsu. “Our intent should be to try and actually reduce in-state tuition.”

Kaler said he doesn’t expect unanimous support for his tuition proposal but would work toward some measure of consensus. McMaster said it’s important to keep in mind that there is a projected decrease in the number of students Minnesota high schools will graduate after 2020.

“If we bank our enrollment strategy around Minnesota students,” he said, “we’re going to be in tough shape.”