Lawmakers turn down U of M's tuition freeze request

UofM students
Students and staff members on University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis, April 29, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Students at Minnesota public colleges and universities would see only limited tuition relief under the higher-education bill that passed in a flurry of end-of-session activity Monday.

The Legislature effectively turned down the University of Minnesota's request to fund another two-year tuition freeze. It gave the university $22 million for tuition relief — far below the $65 million it had asked for.

Lawmakers were more generous in that area with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. They gave it $100 million out of the $142 million system officials requested — about half of which was supposed to go toward keeping tuition flat.

That left MnSCU campuses with just a partial freeze, and the University of Minnesota with no freeze at all.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

"This final bill is more balanced toward MnSCU than the U," said Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller.

It's not a sure thing that Gov. Mark Dayton will sign the bill. He told reporters Tuesday that because the House GOP has refused to compromise over an E-12 education bill, he's dropping his promise to spare other budget bills. He says he has yet to review them, and said he's not sure when he'll schedule a special session.

At MnSCU, tuition at community and technical colleges would remain frozen next year, though tuition at four-year universities would be allowed to rise. The following year, college tuition would have to go down by at least one percent, and university tuition would be frozen.

Tuition at two-year public colleges stands at just over $4,800, and at universities it's almost $6,800.

MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said in a written statement that system leaders are "very grateful to Gov. Dayton and the legislature for their generous support."

He said no decisions have been made about next year's tuition.

"I have reached out to student and faculty leaders and in consultation with the presidents will begin to discuss resource needs and student tuition interests," he said. "The final decision will be up to the Board of Trustees."

They normally make their decision at their regular June meeting, but trustee Duane Benson said that could prove tough if the political wrangling drags out and keeps MnSCU in financial limbo.

Although he said MnSCU fared relatively well in the bill, he said he foresees employee layoffs if the state's appropriation isn't enough to cover the cost of the proposed tuition freezes.

At a recent MnSCU board meeting, St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter, whose campus reported a $12.3 million operating loss last year amid drops in enrollment, said an inability to increase tuition could pose a hardship. The university, he said, has the second-lowest tuition among its Minnesota peers, and needs more revenue from tuition.

MnSCU CFO Laura King said being able to raise tuition next year "would certainly be a big help" to that campus.

St. Cloud State is just one of 11 two- and four-year campuses that have drafted financial recovery plans this year because of enrollment declines.

A University of Minnesota spokesman said officials won't comment on the budget until the governor signs it.

President Eric Kaler told reporters months ago he was open to raising tuition — which now stands at $13,600 a year, including fees, for resident undergraduates — if the state didn't fully fund his request for a freeze. The amount Kaler requested would have prevented tuition hikes of 3 percent for undergraduates and 3.5 percent for graduate students, university officials said at the time.

The State Grant, Minnesota's main source of public financial aid, received a $7 million increase. That's below the amount requested by the governor and the Senate.

But it's far above the amount proposed by the House, which Office of Higher Education officials said would have led to a cut of $93 a year to the average grant.

Now the average State Grant recipient would see an increase of $188 a year, and the grant will be accessible to an estimated 1,700 students additional students.

The program promising free tuition for all students at two-year state colleges — proposed by state Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, has been scaled down, and is now a pilot program for an estimated 1,600 students enrolled in a career or technical program.