U budget remains undecided as session nears end

Emily Johns

With the legislative session winding to a close, compromises that will be made in the higher education conference committee will determine the fate of the University budget for the 2004-05 year.

One of the main issues is a “high tuition, high aid” model proposed by the governor and the House Higher Education Finance Committee, which takes away funding from the University and other state schools and uses it to increase state grant funding.

House higher education committee Vice Chairman Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said the committee wanted to be sure state grant funds do not dry up as they did last year, which lead the state to drain work-study and child-care grants.

Nornes said the House committee felt students would be best served if the money was given to poorer students rather than to the institutions.

“It would benefit the students that probably have the most difficult time paying for their education, more than if we just put it into the institution,” Nornes said. “We just wanted to make sure that we don’t rob from the student work-study and the child-care funds.”

Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul and chairwoman of the Senate higher education budget division, said she believes increasing the state grant program budget when budget cuts are essential is not a good idea.

The University, Pappas said, will ultimately pay for the state grant fund increases. She said the majority of the money taken from the University to help students deal with tuition increases ends up going to private colleges and universities in the state through the state grants, instead of to public schools.

“I feel like we’re in a very difficult financial situation and that whatever we do, we need to make sure it’s fair to all students and all higher education institutions,” Pappas said.

Pappas said the Republican philosophy of putting the money, and thus the choice of where to get an education, in the hands of the students does not protect the quality of state colleges and universities.

“Frankly, if your choice is between a not very good public system and a good private system, how is that a choice?” she said. “To make it a true choice we need to make sure we have a strong public system where you can have top professors in small classes.”

Nancy Connell, director of the University of Michigan news service, said Michigan has also raised state financial aid to keep pace with increasing tuition.

Although the University of Michigan, unlike the University, has not had to deal with double-digit tuition increases for the past two years, recent economic downturns have forced Michigan to decrease funding for the current fiscal year.

“Historically, it is true that there is a direct relationship between the amount of state support and the tuition increase,” Connell said. “In other words, when state support remains strong, tuition increases aren’t as high.”

Connell also said the Michigan legislature has been able to provide the financial aid money necessary to meet tuition increases. Current recommendations in the Michigan legislature would take money from state-funded scholarships and give it to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Shannah Moore, associate communications director for the Minnesota State University Student Association, said MSUSA has always been against the “high tuition, high aid” model the governor and the House support.

Moore said because budget issues have been so prominent in the current legislative session, keeping tuition low has been a bottom-line priority for MSUSA.

“It’s always been our thought that the best form of financial aid is low tuition,” Moore said.

Moore also said much of the state grant money goes to students attending private colleges that are not affected by state higher education cuts.

“It’s kind of a double whammy for students attending state schools,” she said.

“Our position is that low tuition is really the best way to go because it encourages access and affordability for everyone; it makes it fair across the board. It is not helping some people more than others,” Moore said.

Emily Johns covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]