On break, higher ed chairs keep University in mind

Rep. Gene Pelowski and Sen. Terri Bonoff are starting new initiatives and continuing old ones.

Alma Provone

Even though the legislative session doesn’t begin until next February, leaders of the state’s higher education committees aren’t taking a break from analyzing issues that could affect the University of Minnesota.

Chairs of the state’s higher education committees, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, are spending their months away from the Capitol working on plans that would cut student costs and increase transparency at the constitutionally autonomous University.

Last session, Pelowski authored legislation to increase state funding for the University and freeze tuition for two years for in-state undergraduates.

“We need to review tuition, and even though we cannot force the U to do anything,” he said, “I’d like to make sure they aren’t raising outside fees to offset the cost of the freeze.”

Jason Rohloff, special assistant to the president for government relations, said the University has kept students’ costs down since the tuition freeze.

But even though costs are down in some areas, some student fees went up, and non-resident and graduate student tuition increased alongside the freeze.

Pelowski also developed strategies last session to improve administrative oversight — a process he plans to continue.

After criticism of the University’s administrative costs last year, legislators requested increased reporting about the institution’s spending.

Pelowski said he’s started preparing for next session and plans to review and streamline policies already in place regarding the University’s transparency.

In addition to continuing work from last session, both legislators are working on new projects.

Bonoff said she would like to work on setting up an apprenticeship program next session that would partner students with public and private businesses.

The system would be similar to programs that exist in Germany, she said, where businesses agree to pay students’ college tuition if the students agree in turn to join the company after graduation.

“We need to ask businesses like Medtronic, General Mills and Cargill to invest in our students right out of high school,” she said.

Bonoff, who spent three weeks touring colleges and universities across the state as part of a higher education “Listening Tour,” said upcoming discussions should focus on alleviating student debt.

On the tour, Bonoff said, she wanted to get a “first-hand perspective” from students.

“Hearing from the students is allowing us to lay out our agenda for the upcoming term,” she said.

She said even though next session is not a “budget-setting” year at the state Legislature, she will work to curb student costs.

Pelowski said another issue he plans to “keep a close eye on” is enrollment rates at the University and within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

“We’re seeing a significant drop in enrollment in the MnSCU system,” he said. “This could signify that students are either maxing out on student debts or that the economy is doing well and more people are going back to work.”

Pelowski said he will be on the University’s campus in the coming weeks to review the 2014 bonding request with President Eric Kaler.

“Touring campus gives [legislators] a better understanding of what happens here,” Rohloff said. “We have to show them our physical needs.”

Rohloff said the request to fund a variety of construction projects throughout the University system focuses on science and research buildings.

The University has been inviting legislators to tour campus and get an understanding of the request, he said.

Students will be encouraged to visit the Capitol to support the bonding request in 2014, Rohloff said, much as they were when the University was advocating for the tuition freeze last spring.

“It’s one thing for University staff or faculty members to talk with legislators about our requests,” Rohloff said. “But it is much more powerful when students do.”