Middle-class students bear brunt of higher tuition costs

Kristin Gustafson

After the federal government granted the University land under the Morrill Act in 1862, the University was obligated to open its doors to those seeking an education.
In addition to this federal aid, the University also gets 40 percent of its budget from the state. In return, the University provides research, outreach, public service and educational programs for Minnesotans.
But what happens if the University is priced beyond a citizen’s reach?
This is the question administrators, faculty members, deans, parents, legislators and students ask when talking tuition.
Over the past 10 years, higher-education tuition and fee cost increases have greatly exceeded students’ ability to pay, according to the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office. University costs are higher than the national college average. However, University tuition and fees costs rank below the Big Ten average.
Minnesota expects students and families to bear most of the burden of this increased cost.
The state’s financial aid policy requires students to pay 47 percent of a college’s recognized price. Students’ parents and the state pick up the rest.
During last year’s legislative session, a $20 million portion of the University’s biennial appropriation request was redirected to state financial aid instead of the University.
Minnesota is one of the most generous states nationally in terms of student aid, which helps the University with one of its highest priorities — keeping the University accessible to those with less income.
But the Legislature’s move shorted the University of much-needed money. As a result, the University is considering raising tuition 5 or 6 percent.
The higher aid from the state government, in addition to help from federal aid, helps the University justify raising tuition, said Peter Zetterberg, University institutional research and reporting director.
Zetterberg favors increasing University tuition to help pay for rising institution costs, as long as the increase does not exclude low-income students, he said.
Many legislators privately support a University tuition hike because it frees money for other state priorities, but they don’t want the move to negatively impact access, he said.
However, not all students benefit from a higher tuition, higher revenue model of higher-education funding. “Students in the middle can get squeezed,” Zetterberg said, referring to middle-income students who don’t qualify for aid and take on jobs or loans to pay increased tuition costs.
This is already the trend. Undergraduate students increasingly work and borrow to pay for college — with almost 80 percent working and more than half borrowing to pay for college, according to state statistics.
Nancy Sinsabaugh, University Scholarships and Financial Aid director, said aid in the form of a loan “is not a gift, or not a discount, or not paying less, but is paying later … loans allow people from the middle class to afford four years in school with 10 years in loans.”
Statistically, a college education pays for itself.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a four-year college degree is increasingly considered the minimum education for a large proportion of high-skill jobs. And bachelor’s degree recipients earn 75 percent more (on average) than those with only a high school diploma.
University President Mark Yudof said the state’s shift in funding away from the college is a “great tragedy” and would rather have the money go directly to the University.
Using tuition increases as a revenue-raiser rather than getting the support directly from the state is a regressive tax on students who are the least well-off in the state.
Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and federal government and welcomes comments at [email protected]