U partially reinstates scholarship

The Regents Scholarship for U faculty and staff will return this fall.

Emma Nelson

Rick Castillo didn’t expect finishing his Master of Business Administration at the University of Minnesota to be one of the worst times of his life.

But after the Regents Scholarship that allowed him to pursue his degree was cut in 2009, he had to finish the second half of the program in a single year and still incurred so much debt that he could no longer afford his rent.

“I would call it a traumatic experience,” he said.

Last week, University President Eric Kaler announced partial reinstatement of the Regents Scholarship — which provides tuition assistance to eligible University faculty and staff members.

Because of an existing policy, the change doesn’t require Board of Regents approval before it goes into effect this coming fall.

In an interview, Kaler said the policy change is “a good way to help folks move up within the University and hopefully stay in the University as they progress through their educational pathway.”

The reinstated scholarship will cover 100 percent of tuition costs for eligible faculty and staff members pursuing their first undergraduate degree, and 75 percent of tuition costs for staff members pursuing an additional degree or taking courses without pursuing a degree.

The Regents Scholarship, which originally covered 100 percent of tuition costs for all eligible staff, was cut by 25 percent in 2009. Coverage was cut completely for some preparatory courses, as well as the Carlson School of Management’s Master of Business Administration program.

The scholarship program’s overall cost was reduced by 45 percent within the year and a half following the cut. Originally, it cost about $8.5 million and was used by as many as 1,300 employees, according to data released by the University’s Office of Human Resources.

Within the first semester, the cut caused a 32 percent drop in employee enrollment in the scholarship program, OHR reported.

Kaler said the decision to only partially reinstate the scholarship is a matter of allocating funds to those whom they will benefit most. Providing tuition assistance to someone without an undergraduate degree will have a greater impact than providing funding to someone who already has a degree and is pursuing further education, he said.

In addition, he said, those with a degree are more likely to have higher-paying jobs than those without, and are therefore more able to afford additional tuition costs.

Though Castillo said he didn’t meet any other Regents Scholars in his MBA program, he said he knew of many in other colleges who dropped out entirely, despite still receiving 75 percent tuition coverage.

Amy Selvius, who said she began working at the University largely because of the opportunity to pursue further education through the Regents Scholarship, was one of those people.

Selvius, the secretary for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, began taking archaeology classes in 2003 with plans to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology, but stopped the semester before scholarship cuts began.

“I already live paycheck-to-paycheck,” she said, adding that having to pay 25 percent of tuition in addition to fees would be too expensive.

After seeing the financial impact of finishing his degree, Castillo said at times he regrets his choice.

Dropping out was “probably a better decision,” he said. “I really wanted to have a completed MBA, though.”

Michael Anderson, director of the University’s Minnesota English Language Program, said enrollment in the program by Regents Scholars “changed drastically” after the scholarship was cut.

In the past, many Regents Scholars enrolled in the program to improve their English for job duties or in the hopes of ultimately pursuing a degree, Anderson said.

After tuition coverage was cut to 75 percent, the number of Regents Scholars enrolled in a given term dropped from about 20 to just one or two, Anderson said.

“My assumption is that paying 25 percent [of tuition] is the reason they are not taking the classes,” he said.

Enrollment is unlikely to change with the partial reinstatement, Anderson said. The policy change won’t affect most Regents Scholars taking Minnesota English Language Program courses because they are typically not pursuing a degree.

“Quite a few of our students were working on their English so that if they were to take undergraduate courses, like in a degree program, they could be successful in those classes,” he said.

Anderson said MELP doesn’t currently serve that population of employees, but would like to if possible.

Although the scholarship will not provide its original level of coverage, some employees said they’re glad to see action on the issue.

“Regardless of not giving it completely back to us, it was a quick, decisive move and a good one,” said Amy Olson, chair-elect of the Civil Service Consultative Committee — one of the groups that advocated for restoring the scholarship’s coverage.

The Regents Scholarship was a major part of testimonials on Kaler’s proposed budget at the May Board of Regents meeting.  Proponents of reinstatement are “pleased” overall with Kaler’s decision, Olson said.

“If you want an educated staff body, we need the opportunity to be educated,” she said.

But many of the University’s staff members already have bachelor’s degrees, she said, so the next step is to increase coverage to certificate and master’s programs.

Two years after completing his MBA, Castillo — also an AFSCME member — said he’s just beginning the entrepreneurial ventures that he hoped to pursue when he enrolled.

“It has not been a good experience getting back to this sort of normal,” he said.