Trustees decided to buy some time to review their budget options, rather than lower tuition increases. The additional rate reductions -- a plan that developed within the past two weeks --would have saved two-year college students up to $63 a year and as much as $29 a year for students in four-year universities.
Justin McMartin, who heads the student association for the four-year MnSCU schools, says that may not sound like much, but for students, those numbers add up.
"I know several students who work full-time jobs, live in apartments with three other guys -- a one-bedroom apartment -- and eat raman noodles everyday. Now give that student $26 or $50 and it has a lot greater impact," according to McMartin.
As it is, the operating budget the trustees approved hikes tuition and fees an average of 4 percent -- or $175 -- per student this year. That is in keeping with the board's promise last fall and staves off a proposal to cut into a $6 million plan to improve campus technology systems.
But Scott Formo, president of the State College Student Association, believes it goes against the stated -- if unwritten -- message from the Legislature that lower tuition should be the priority of college decision-makers.
"They were very clear to Vice Chancellor King and to everybody else who was there at those committee hearings that technology was one area of investment, but that some of that money was also meant to be put toward some type of tuition relief to keep it well below the 4 percent," Formo said.
The student groups supported a proposal that surfaced in recent days to plane down the tuition rate increase to as low as 1.5 percent. But that caused system administrators to worry that the $6 million switch could delay needed improvements in software, computers and network connections, although officials couldn't yet identify where those delays would occur.
Trustee Duane Benson, a former Minnesota senator, says divining the Legislature's intent is not a clear-cut process. He also says he's not convinced taking money away from the planned technology improvements would not also cost students money and opportunity.
"We don't know how many people are not enrolling because they have to go through all the machinations of applying to one college, applying at another college, because our systems can't talk to each other," he said. "Now I don't know what that's worth to an individual student. Is it worth $27? Is it $50? I don't know what it is. It's worth a lot to somebody who doesn't even consider enrolling because of the obstacles we built."
The MnSCU system comprises more than 30 schools, seven of which are four-year universities. The system serves more than 135,000 enrolled students and more than 100,000 people earning credits part time. Tuitions at the system's four-year institutions are close to the national average. But the two-year schools rank among the top three most expensive in the nation. That fact influenced the trustees' decision process, but in the end they opted to get more information before shifting money in favor of lower tuition.
Trustee Cheryl Dixon favored bringing administrators back in January with a better handle on what the spending changes mean.
"There is no reason come January we can't meet these numbers or even do better," she said. "But if we were to do that, we would be doing it with a full plate of information. I prefer to do that rather than shooting in the dark as we're doing today."
The board asks MnSCU staff to explore the effect a tuition rate of less than 3 percent would have in the next academic year.
The action comes less than two weeks after the University of Minnesota approved a budget that uses state incentives to keep student cost increases below 2 percent for most students.