High time to kill high tuition, high aid

In the political hubris of the last legislative season, Gov. Arne Carlson banded together with both a former legislator and a former representative and proposed the high tuition-high aid policy for higher education. Thankfully, his plan failed.
Although the issue hasn’t surfaced in the Legislature thus far this year (thanks in small part to Carlson’s proposed $116 million funding increase for the University), the high tuition-high aid idea hasn’t faded into political oblivion either. As recently as September, the Citizens League stepped forward with a report embracing high tuition-high aid policies.
It’s important to remind our elected representatives that this is a proposal better left in my parents’ attic next to the polyester leisure suits, platform soles and BeeGees LPs.
Far from being a bold, forward-thinking funding paradigm for the future, Carlson’s near-sighted tunnel vision threatened to make a University degree a distant dream for most middle-class Minnesotan families like mine.
The goal of Carlson’s ghoulish nightmare was decent enough; he hoped to increase educational opportunities for the poorest families on the economic landscape. The proposed plan worked something like this: By raising tuition at public institutions like the University or St. Cloud State to stratospheric levels, more money would be available for financial aid in the form of grants and loans.
Gee, that sounds great. Unfortunately, backers of high tuition-high aid mortgaged their initiative on the backs of the shrinking middle class.
To shamelessly steal from the in-your-face, get-off-your-butt motivational speaker Susan Powter, I must protest, “Stop the insanity!”
First, some details. At Carlson’s urging last year, former state legislator John Brandl and former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber proposed sweeping changes to deal with anticipated budget deficits at the state level in the coming years. This dynamic duo urged Carlson to slash spending by $1.2 billion by 2001, and education was slated to take a $500 million hit. Implementation was delayed only because an unusually strong economy is expected to generate a surplus in excess of $1 billion in the next biennium.
Higher education’s slice of the budget pie declined from an all-time high of 16 percent in 1987 to its present 12 percent. Strangely enough, visionaries like Brandl and Weber called for another round of slash-and-burn policies.
Worse still, Brandl and Weber wanted to radically overhaul appropriations to the University. Currently, the University of Minnesota receives about $1 billion every biennium, 90 percent of which is allocated directly and the remaining 10 percent of which is set aside for students in the form of grants and loans. Under the proposal, the University’s share would plummet to 30 percent, while financial aid would skyrocket.
News like that is bad news indeed. If a similarly draconian measure passes this year, tuition will rise sharply in future years to cover the huge reduction in direct state appropriations.
This nefarious shell game must be thought of as the fraudulent funding scheme it is. The best method of insuring financial accessibility at public institutions like the University is to keep tuition low. Before sending the current system to the salvage yard, Carlson et al. should initiate small refinements like tightening eligibility standards for financial aid.
Unfortunately, modern-day Robin Hoods lurking at the state capitol advocate a radical new system where we steal from the poor to help the poorer (a replay, if memory serves, of Reagan’s Greatest Hits). Since 1990, the total of tuition loans has topped $100 billion, and there is no end in sight. Intellectually haphazard brainstorms like high tuition-high aid will only exacerbate depressing statistics like these.
Many students chose the University because of its affordability (like me, for instance), but sadly enough, the muckrakers and social engineers in St. Paul ignore this. Simply put, the University will price itself out of the educational market under the high tuition-high aid plan. Although Harvard may be able to offer 70 percent of its students some form of financial aid, the annual price tag exceeds $27,000. This is not a model the University should follow.
The former chancellor of Minnesota State Universities, Terrence MacTaggart, in 1994 argued against a similar high tuition-high aid proposal that was circulating in the education community. And rightly so. At Metropolitan State University, for example, increased financial aid packages would have been awarded to roughly 1,000 students at the cost of increasing tuition for 7,000 others. That hardly seemed like an equitable solution then, and it certainly isn’t any more fair now.
Increases in tuition and fees at the University since the early 1980s totaled a whopping 264 percent as of last year (that’s excluding the 7.5 percent the Board of Regents tacked on in June). By comparison, the Consumer Price Index rose only 71 percent during that time. Another pocketbook hijacking is not in students’ best interest, though politicians like Carlson just don’t get it.
A high tuition-high aid policy will not serve the best interests of Minnesotan families and students, and Carlson would do well to again set aside the ramblings of blue-ribbon commissions and advisors.
In the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, John Marty, the losing DFL-endorsed candidate, ran a series of political attack ads that ended with the familiar refrain, “That darn Arne!” It’s a shame more of us weren’t listening because he’s still our darn governor, and he very well may make the University darn more expensive.

Greg Lauer’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.