Bill to freeze tuition at UMN sparks discussion at Capitol

If adopted, the bill could negatively impact the University’s budget, officials said.

The Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 18.

Tony Saunders

The Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 18.

Isabella Murray

In a tearful testimony in front of lawmakers last week, Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Moorhead student Matt Benjamin described his struggle to stay in school while supporting his family. 

Benjamin’s testimony was in support of a bill that would freeze tuition at the University of Minnesota and freeze or reduce tuition at the Minnesota State system. The legislation would significantly impact Benjamin, along with an increasing number of working students who face rising tuition costs.  

“I’ve become fluent in the art of juggling the bills to stretch every dollar to its fullest potential,” Benjamin said. “Unfortunately, the better future I’m looking forward to is overshadowed by the mountain of student loans waiting to be repaid just a few short months after graduation.”

The bill fostered heated discussion between Senate higher education committee members about college affordability and the “unsustainable” rising costs for students across the state. Lawmakers then tabled the legislation until Tuesday, when it was laid over for possible inclusion in the higher education omnibus bill. 

“What I’m trying to do with this bill is … create the conversation that we’re having, and push our institutions to be better,” chief bill author and Senate higher education committee chair Sen. Paul Anderson, R- Plymouth, said Tuesday. 

Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, was the bill’s biggest opponent. A decline in the state’s investment in the University and Minnesota State colleges in recent years won’t allow for the tuition freeze or decrease at the schools, he said.

“The reality is, the reason tuition is going up is because we’re not investing. Not because the schools are somewhat at fault or nefarious in any way,” Isaacson said. “They have taken serious cuts because of that.” 

Isaacson said the Legislature needs to find better ways of supporting higher education, with potential tuition freezes coming later. 

If the Board of Regents was forced to abide this legislation, the impact on the University’s budget for the next two years would be significant, said Brian Burnett, University senior vice president for finance and operations in his testimony last week.

An increase in tuition is an essential aspect of the University’s upcoming budgets. According to Burnett, the University will raise undergraduate resident tuition by around 2 percent if its entire $87 million ask is allocated, resulting in a $27 million increase in tuition revenue.  

“[The increase] is what’s needed to maintain the current scope and quality of our programming across all three of our missions: instruction, research and public service,” Burnett said.

The potential loss of the increased revenue creates a significant hole in the University’s budget, Burnett said.

“Freezing tuition for the resident undergraduates for the next biennium across all campuses would exponentially increase the importance of new state funding, and it would lead potentially to the reductions in the scope and quality of the University,” he said.  

While the bill is laid over, lawmakers will continue to discuss how the state deals with higher education throughout the session. But those in the committee were pleased with the start of negotiations surrounding college affordability. 

“If it’s not going to be us that have the hard conversations about tuition increases, then who? And if not now, when? This has gone on year after year after year,” Anderson said. “We need to be bold, and we need to have the conversation.”