Students to shoulder half of U cuts

The University’s president predicted a double-digit tuition hike.

by Libby George

University students will bear at least 50 percent of the institution’s state funding cuts in the form of tuition and fees increases, University President Robert Bruininks told the House Higher Education Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Bruininks said the cuts – estimated at $197 million dollars – were “the most severe budget cuts probably since the Civil War.”

The numbers come from the $185 million base cut to the University under Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget proposal, along with a $3.8 million Legislature-mandated reduction and statutory enrollment adjustments caused by a large number of applications.

Bruininks estimated total enrollment at 62,000, which would be a record high.

Although Bruininks said the University would try to keep tuition increases to a minimum, he was not optimistic about the prospects.

“We’ll do everything we can to try to live within the 15 percent guidelines given to the University of Minnesota Ö but there are no rabbits to pull out of a hat,” he said, adding, “I see no way to keep it below a double-digit increase.”

Bruininks said it was too early in the budgeting process to give any specific numbers, but he said any worsening in the state budget would have a “disproportionate effect on tuition.”

Increasing aid

Committee members questioned Bruininks on the pragmatism of the governor’s proposed $60 million financial aid increase.

Bruininks told legislators this could ruin the University’s reputation as a top research institution, and he advocated eliminating the Higher Education Services Office.

“If you want a research institution, if you want a medical school and a graduate school, you cannot move toward a voucher-driven system,” he said.

Bruininks said although private schools account for 33 percent of students, 53 percent of financial aid money goes to them.

Pawlenty’s proposal would cut the University’s budget by $30 million to fund financial aid. When he released the budget proposal Feb. 18, he told lawmakers it was an effort to ensure access in light of inevitable tuition increases.

“We want to try to shield lower-income students, provide access and increase competition,” Pawlenty said.

Bruininks said this also harms the University because graduate and professional students – who account for 40 percent of students – receive no money through financial aid programs.

Bruininks said the state could reduce administrative costs by eliminating the Higher Education Services Office completely, shifting financial aid distribution to schools.

Committee members were receptive to the idea.

“I think it’s a dialogue the committee should have,” Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Robbinsdale, said.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Student Association has also advocated eliminating the Higher Education Services Office, saying the office cut off work-study funds and reduced child care grants this year after underestimating the number of grant applicants.

Plug for funding

Bruininks told legislators that funding the University is crucial to ensuring its reputation.

“We can’t afford to stand still. Especially if you are a research institution, you don’t just stand still, you lose ground,” he said.

Bruininks said schools in other states with budget crises – including Michigan, Wisconsin and California – are still creating biology programs because of the grant money they bring the state.

Bruininks said that last year the University received $527 million in grants, much of it from outside the state.

“It’s critically important for this state and the University of Minnesota to stay the course and invest in the future of this state,” he said. “You cannot cut your way to the future. You have to invest your way to the future.”

Bruininks said all programs will be evaluated for cuts, including coordinate University campuses such as Rochester.

“They are not targeted,” Bruininks said. “But they are definitely on the table.”

He also asked legislators not to tie the University’s hands with “riders” on budget provisions because in order to solve the budget crisis the University needs “maximum flexibility.”

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]