Blank: Blame for UMN’s tuition hikes should fall on the state legislature

The state and federal government should keep the University of Minnesota’s tuition at bay without forcing the university to cut important programs.

by Lew Blank

College tuition cost and student loan debt are at record highs. The average college graduate in Minnesota faces more than $21,000 in student debt, the fourth worst rate in the nation as of 2017, according to a Business Insider article.

That’s why the University of Minnesota’s decision to raise tuition by 2 percent for undergraduates and 3 percent for many graduate and professional students is so devastating. The uptick in tuition — which equates to a $337 increase for resident undergraduates from last year — can make essential expenditures like food, healthcare and rent harder to finance and can impede students’ academic success.

It goes without saying that some of the blame for the tuition increases should be placed on the University’s administration. A 2015 audit, for instance, found that the University’s athletics department violated several spending rules by inappropriately spending more than $51,000 on alcohol and granting Major League Baseball free use of TCF Bank Stadium in exchange for tickets to the 2014 All Star game. And although the University has successfully cut $15 million per year from its overhead budget, officials have argued that it could be doing more to weed out inefficiencies. Both of these areas present opportunities for the University to lower costs.

But while these piecemeal snips at administrative waste are important, they simply aren’t enough to offset the tuition hikes. Tuition generates about $879 million per year, so even if the University cut a few hundred thousand dollars from its administrative budget, it would hardly leave a dent in terms of overall tuition.

In reality, in order to offset the increases in tuition, the University would need to make serious cuts to important elements in its budget that genuinely improve the student experience. In fact, just to keep the University’s increase in undergraduate tuition at 2 percent — as opposed to earlier proposals for a rise of 2.5 percent — former University President Eric Kaler recommended cutting financial support for graduate assistants in the College of Biological Sciences and reducing the number of faculty in the departments of Economics, Statistics and Psychology.

Students want tuition to remain flat. But for the University to do that on its own, it would need to do more than just eliminate bureaucracy — it would need to scrap expenditures that benefit students and make the University a high-quality academic institution.

Instead of solely blaming the University for the tuition hikes, we should criticize the state legislature for failing to meet the University’s budgetary requests.

One of the main reasons that the University was forced to raise tuition in the first place was that it only received $43.5 million from the state legislature in funding beyond base appropriations — just half of what it asked for. If the state legislature allocated the University with the requested amount of funds, the increases in tuition could have been significantly reduced without needing to cut any programs that benefit students.

The federal government should step up, too. In the short term, it should raise taxes on the wealthy to increase funding for grants and loans to help low-income students afford college. In the longer term, it should enact a law to make public universities tuition-free, which would improve academics and quality of life for millions of students and significantly reduce student debt.

Instead of asking the University to cut important programs that aid and benefit its students, the burden should be placed on the state and federal government to ensure that students can have a high-quality University experience without forking over even more money than they already are.