Leaders want tuition freeze for state colleges, universities

Published 7:24 am Wednesday, September 21, 2016

By Josh Verges

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Leaders of Minnesota’s largest higher education system want to freeze tuition next year, but it’ll take a lot of money from the state to make it happen.

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Trustees for the Minnesota State system, which includes Riverland Community College, are meeting in Duluth this week to discuss the funding proposal they’ll submit to the state budget office in November.

System administrators recommend asking for a $173 million increase in state funding for the 2018-19 biennium. That includes:

•$74 million to cover inflationary cost increases in salaries and operations

•$69 million to make up for what would have been a 3 percent tuition increase

•$20 million to pay for a portion of a new records management system for the entire system

•$10 million for innovative projects to improve student outcomes, especially for underserved students

The proposal “asks for what we need” and “leads with a powerful commitment to affordability,” according to agenda materials for the meeting. It’s also a historically large ask.

Last biennium, Minnesota State asked for a $142 million increase and ended up with $121 million.

That paid for a tuition freeze this fall after a 3.4 percent increase for the seven state universities and 1 percent cut for the 24 state colleges after a tuition freeze last year.

The state funds nearly half of Minnesota State’s annual budget, which is around $1.5 billion. Decades ago, the state picked up closer to two-thirds of the system’s costs.

“We would like that back up to where it was,” said Joe Wolf, state chair for Students United, which represents students at the state universities.

Wolf, who in spring 2015 joined a 142-km walk from Mankato to St. Paul to advocate for a tuition freeze, said affordable tuition is at the top of his organization’s wish list.

“Whether that means a decrease or a tuition freeze, affordability is at the forefront of students’ minds,” he said.

The University of Minnesota is considering asking for a $122 million increase in its biennial state appropriation.

Financial fixes debated

Budget woes will be a big topic for conversation during the Minnesota State trustees’ annual retreat Tuesday and Wednesday. The system has placed more than half its schools under close financial monitoring, and leaders project annual deficits into the hundreds of millions by 2025.

This summer, a task force appointed by Chancellor Steven Rosenstone recommended a series of cost-cutting and revenue-generating measures to get the system back on track. On the list are several ideas for forcing the individual colleges and universities to cooperate and share services and employees.

In a joint letter to trustees, college and university labor groups cast doubt on the budget projections and said the task force relied on “recycled ideas for austerity that are contradictory to the realities we face on campuses.”

The state college faculty have offered their own recommendations, including a moratorium on new construction and financial incentives to keep students progressing toward a degree.

—Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.