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Higher education cuts could mean tuition hike

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If the governor uses his powers to reduce higher education funding, officials from both the U of M and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system say tuition will rise, and it could rise by double-digit amounts.

Both systems laid out their concerns at the Capitol over the weekend.

MnSCU chancellor James McCormick said he wasn't there to whine about the potential for cuts to MnSCU's budget.  But, he found it interesting that the discussion comes at a time when the state's colleges and universities are dealing with an increase in enrollment. 

"More students, less money, we're trying to be very efficient, working hard at that, and at the same time we worry about that tuition," McCormick said. 

University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks also worried aloud about the cost of tuition if the governor chooses to make big cuts to his school's budget.  Robert Bruininks said if the U's share of the cut over two years was around $200 million, the U could raise tuition to make up for the funding gap. 

"It would put the tuition increase clearly comfortably, uncomfortably, in double-digit territory and pretty close to 15 percent," Bruininks said.  

Bruininks admitted a 15 percent tuition hike would be too much for students and their families.  A smaller increase would be more likely paired with other cuts at the U.  Bruininks claims as many as 750 jobs could be eliminated. 

Some lawmakers question why the governor would cut as deeply as $190 million.  That would take funding below the 2006-2007 level for the state's colleges, about $3.5 billion.  Under federal rules, a cut that deep means the state wouldn't be eligible for federal stimulus funds that were set aside to ease the burden of tuition increases at Minnesota colleges.   

The talk of double-digit tuition increases has other lawmakers, like Republican Sen. Claire Robling,  asking schools to dip into their reserve funds to make up for the shortfall. 

"The state is using all of our reserve balances pretty well," Robling said.  "Other institutions dependent on the state probably will have to do the same thing during this tough economic time."

Officials at MnSCU and the U of M said they will tap their reserve funds, which total in the tens of millions of dollars, but they don't want to zero them out. 

The higher education budget bill Gov. Pawlenty signed over the weekend contains a measure requiring the U and MnSCU to keep tuition increases at no more than 3 percent a year in each of the next two years. 

But DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas said if the Governor cuts further into the higher education budget, that cap on tuition is a requirement the state's colleges should not have to abide by.   

"I just don't think we can hold them to their promise and our requirement to hold down tuition increases," Pappas said. "So instead of the 3 percent increase that were promised, we'd see something significantly higher, maybe even double digits like in 2003."

In 2003, Governor Pawlenty cut about $200 million from both MnSCU and the U of M's two year budgets.  

Not many students would willingly agree to a tuition increase.  But the Minnesota State University Student Association said a 5 percent increase in each of the next two years would be reasonable.  

Jennifer Weil is vice chair of the student association, and just graduated from Minnesota State University at Moorhead over the weekend.  

Weil said students shouldn't face big increases in tuition when they're also dealing with the tough economy.  

"Students are having a hard time finding employment, their savings are depleted as well as their parental support," Weil said.

The recently-passed federal stimulus bill could provide students with some relief from rising tuition.  The higher education bill, as it stands, provides the University of Minnesota and MnSCU about $90 million in the next two years to hold down the cost of tuition.