Cuts hit poor students hardest

The state’s failure to fund higher education has limited access for low-income students.

by Thomas D. Trehus - student political director Minnesota Student Association’s Legislative Certificate Program

As the youngest of three in my middle-class family from rural southeastern Minnesota, I knew financing college wouldnâÄôt be a problem. My parents had managed their personal finances well, enabling their children to have the opportunity to succeed beyond public high school. In the past, I took these opportunities for granted, but not after living with other students from different walks of life.
I met a good friend in my residence hall during my first year at the University of Minnesota âÄî weâÄôll call him âÄúMark.âÄù Mark comes from a lower middle-class family in a western suburb of the Twin Cities. He is an only child and his parents split up shortly after his birth.
Experiencing the power of upward mobility firsthand, Mark came to campus confident and ready to succeed. However, like so many college students, his hopes and dreams came to a sudden halt when his financial statement came. During the fall Mark took out a number of loans but still had much to pay âÄúout of pocketâÄù in December, which he used what little savings he had to pay.
At the end of spring semester, Mark was stuck with around $3,500 in immediate debt he had to pay off before being able to register for the next academic semester. Mark and his father found it nearly impossible to pay off his debt in time. Like many low-income students, Mark was forced to drop out of college until his immediate short-term debts were paid. Last fall, Mark found himself living at home with his father and working a full-time job at a local café until he earned enough money to pay his previous semesterâÄôs bill.
According to a study done by the Institute for College Access and Success, the average student debt after leaving the University in 2009 was over $26,000. This number is daunting, especially for a public institution.
If youâÄôve been following state policymaking recently, you should have noticed the sheer disregard for higher education in Minnesota. Over the last 10 years, tuition at the University has increased over 134 percent, well over inflation rates. This comes after state appropriations have plummeted. In the past, the state of Minnesota covered two-thirds of each studentâÄôs tuition; today, it covers less than one-third. Unfortunately, the state now faces a $6.2 billion budget deficit, leaving higher education, which makes up 8 percent of the state budget, vulnerable to even more cuts. This leaves students, faculty, programs and essential services vulnerable, too.
Last week I was disappointed to watch the first round of budget cuts proposed by the majority in state Legislature. The cuts included slashing the UniversityâÄôs budget by $89.2 million. This came after six University students, including me, werenâÄôt given a chance to testify on the matter due to the âÄútime constraintsâÄù of the House Higher Education Committee.
For the future of my friend Mark and many others like him âÄî even those who may come from great means âÄî college is simply becoming unaffordable. For those looking for a quality, affordable education, the prospects are bleak. State lawmakers need to realize how crucial the Universitys is to the future of Minnesota. An educated workforce drives economic development and spurs job creation through attracting advanced industries.
If you are frustrated like I am, if you are struggling to pay for college, if you have a friend like Mark, or if your program is being cut or eliminated, you must speak up. If you live in Minnesota, you have a state legislator who will listen to you, and if they donâÄôt, they themselves may face bleak prospects come November of 2012.