Hundreds of Minnesota college students made their way to the state capitol Wednesday, wearing bright red stocking caps.
It wasn't a fashion statement, but rather a message to lawmakers. The caps had the word "tuition" stitched on them and students were rallying in support of a tuition cap.
After a half-mile march from St. Paul College to the state capitol, Bemidji State University student Andrew Spaeth was one of those in charge of getting 400 students from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system charged up.
"In the last decade, we've seen tuition increase by more than 100 percent at the state universities -- and by over 100 percent at the two year institutions in the MnSCU institutions," said Spaeth, chairman of the Minnesota State University Student Association. In a message to legislators, the crowd punctuated his remarks with boos.
State Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, has introduced legislation freezing tuition in the MnSCU system and at the University of Minnesota for two years. After that, the bill requires any tuition increase to be tied to the rate of inflation.
"We have got to stop balancing the budgets of universities on the backs of students," he told students Wednesday.
Slowing growth in the cost of tuition shouldn't hurt academic programs at colleges, Carlson said.
"My idea is we need to trim administrative expenses, not programs," he said.
Student leaders say they're more inclined to support a cap on increases rather than all out freeze.
But Minnesota college officials say Carlson's effort to completely freeze tuition for two years could make a tough situation worse.
That's because colleges are also planning for deep cuts in their funding as lawmakers work to fix a $6.2 billion dollar budget deficit. They say a freeze would tie their hands and not allow them to replace revenue lost when the state cuts aid to colleges.
University of Minnesota officials say that could lower their credit rating and make it harder for the university to borrow money.
MnSCU officials say state law gives their board of trustees the authority to set tuition rates for the system's 32 universities, community and technical colleges, a decision they think is best made by the trustees.
Laura King, the chief financial officer at MnSCU, said cuts paired with a tuition freeze would hit hard. King said that could result in deeper faculty cuts and threatens MnSCU's ability to teach the its more than 200,000 enrolled students.
"We don't want to go there because we think it's in the state's interest that we continue to graduate 60 plus percent of the college graduates in Minnesota," King said.
Student leaders at the rally said officials in the MnSCU system and lawmakers should be able to find a way to slow the growth of tuition bills, while at the same time preserving the quality of higher education.
"It's an understandable concern that if we tap tuition that we might see a diminished quality," said , Geoff Dittberner, vice president of the Minnesota State College Student Association. "That's why we're really making sure that we push for a more effective MnSCU system, with a tuition cap."
Wednesday's rally was led by students from MnSCU campuses. University of Minnesota students are planning a similar rally at the capitol next week.