Officials continue testimony to Senate

Senators probed University leaders on a variety of topics as they asked for state money.

by Benjamin Farniok

University of Minnesota officials finished making their case to a Senate committee on Tuesday, highlighting the need for continued state investment.

And while they noted that the University had passed all five state-mandated performance measures tied to funding last year, not all senators on the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee were satisfied with the institution’s testimony.

Lawmakers at the hearing questioned the University’s methods used to cut administrative spending, improve graduation rates and keep tuition levels flat.

Tuition prices were a major talking point, and legislators discussed a report that ranks other large schools based on student costs. The University ranked fourth highest in undergraduate tuition rates and fees for in-state students in 2013, according to the report, and 11th for out-of-state students — the lowest of the ranked schools.

“I think that we’ve got that inverted,” Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said at the meeting. “After all, it is our taxpayers that are funding the U.”

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said she’s still concerned with the University’s administrative spending, though cuts were made as part of the performance measures.

At a committee meeting last week, she questioned how the $39 million in administrative cuts have been spent. University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the savings provided additional funding for libraries, technology licensing and maintenance costs.

University officials gave a similar report to the House of Representatives’ Higher Education Policy and Finance committee last week.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said school administrators should have offered a more comprehensive review of institutional spending.

“Instead, we’ve had overviews, which are PowerPoint fluff presentations that really don’t give us an idea of the ‘U’s’ budget in any way, shape or form,” he said.

At the Senate committee meeting, lawmakers said they would like to see the University improve its four-year graduation rate, which was at 48 percent in 2013.

“We need to find a way to get the associate’s degrees done in two years and bachelor’s degrees in four years,” said Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona.

At the meeting Tuesday, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Bob McMaster said the University implemented a number of measures to increase student graduation rates last year.

“We have become more selective in that we want to admit students who we are confident, based on their records, will graduate in four years,” he said.

McMaster also said he wants to maintain a more efficient and transparent curriculum, sustain financial aid support for students and continue to improve advising methods at the University to increase graduation rates.

Some legislators said though the University has satisfied the performance measures, they would like to see the institution continue improving in line with changes that have been made.

“We will use the same number of performance metrics [next year], but they will be changed,” Bonoff said. “We will set a focus on completion rates but also serving the underserved.”