Orfield resumes tuition-relief fight

by Tracy Ellingson

Last January about 200 students gathered on the Washington Avenue Bridge, ignoring the cold weather and shunning their classes in a show of support for a tuition-relief bill sponsored by Rep. Myron Orfield, DFL-Minneapolis.
Nearly a year after his bill was passed in a drastically reduced form, the fourth-term representative said he plans to continue the fight for tuition reduction for state colleges and universities.
Orfield said he plans to introduce a new bill this session that would provide an annual contribution of funds earmarked specifically for tuition relief to state schools. The funds would be separate from the University’s budget allocation and would increase slightly each year to help create a gradual decrease in tuition rates, which are currently about 22 percent over the national average.
“It will be a bill that over five or six years tries to return tuition to the national average and keep the contribution of the state up to its historical levels,” Orfield said.
Orfield introduced last year’s bill in the House of Representatives with a request for a one-time $50 million contribution. Half of that amount would have gone directly to the University and would have decreased students’ tuition by hundreds of dollars.
When the bill finally passed, however, the Legislature allocated about $5 million to be divided among all of the state schools. Orfield said the funding saved state college and university students about $50 per student on this year’s tuition. Critics of the bill said it was only a quick-fix that did not address keeping tuition down in the long run.
Orfield’s new bill addresses that criticism and, if it passes, students could save several hundred dollars next year. The long-time allocation could mean that in five years, tuition savings would reach more than $1,000 per student, Orfield said.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chairman of the Higher Education Finance Division and co-sponsor of last year’s tuition reduction bill, said the best way to lower tuition is to establish long-term tuition relief allocation rather than large one-time donations.
“I have been an advocate over the last few weeks and am going to continue to be,” Pelowski said, “to recommit base adjustments to (Minnesota state colleges and universities) and to the University of Minnesota.”
Cori Ertz, chairwoman of the Student Legislative Coalition at the University, said Orfield is a “best friend to students.” Ertz worked closely with Orfield last year, both as part of a mentorship program and as student lobbyist for the tuition bill.
“He’s always been helpful,” Ertz said. “He’s always thought of students in his legislative agenda.”
Ertz said she is particularly impressed that the representative devotes so much of his attention to tuition because although some college students reside in his Uptown and south Minneapolis district, a majority of his constituents are not in school.
“The fact that he thinks of the students even though he has many other constituencies in that area, I think is great,” Ertz said.
Orfield, who was an undergraduate at the University in the early 1980s and even ran for student body president, said lower tuition is generally popular with the public and is a goal many legislators would like to achieve during this session.
“Generally the legislators are very much in favor of (the new bill), and most middle-class citizens are, and people think that tuition should be lower,” Orfield said. “They think it’s a good policy for kids to get college educations.”
Orfield said, however, that the biggest challenge facing any tuition-relief legislation comes from the many other programs competing for the state’s funds, such as welfare, K-12 education and a new baseball stadium. Also, Orfield said Gov. Arne Carlson is committed to a high tuition high-aid plan in which tuition rates will increase, but state funding will provide more aid so students can pay for the rising costs.
This plan conflicts with Orfield’s belief that lower tuition is more important to students than high aid, because it is a more direct way to save students money in the long run.
Regardless of the governor’s stance on higher education, the University and other state schools still compete closely when their students and administrators vie for funds. Orfield said the three best actions a student can take in helping pass tuition-reduction legislation are: coming to the State Capitol to talk with legislators, calling legislators about the issue and writing letters.
“Ten or 12 letters on an issue from people that the representative knows and that are active in his district can make a difference,” Orfield said. “So, it’s a tremendously small amount of people that can make a difference if they’re active.”