Potential UMN tuition increases draw criticism from legislators

After Kaler suggested increased resident tuition for Twin Cities undergraduates, legislators questioned the school’s priorities.

President Eric Kaler addresses the Minnesota House of Representatives Higher Education Finance and Policy Division Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 15 in Saint Paul.

Courtney Deutz

President Eric Kaler addresses the Minnesota House of Representatives Higher Education Finance and Policy Division Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 15 in Saint Paul.

Isabella Murray

A potential tuition increase for University of Minnesota students has drawn criticism from lawmakers, who say the school should do more to cut costs. 

At a press conference in early January, University President Eric Kaler said he anticipates a 2 percent resident tuition increase for Twin Cities undergraduate students for the next academic year if the University’s biennial budget request is met. Lawmakers have questioned the University’s decision to prioritize faculty compensation and operational costs over a tuition freeze in its $87 million ask. 

Kaler said a partial budget request could result in a sharper increase if approved by the Board of Regents, although the University will try to “minimize” tuition increases. 

“We would hope for something more for our money, or maybe [the University is] just being brutally honest,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

Sixty percent of this year’s ask would go toward providing competitive compensation for faculty and staff, said Brian Burnett, the University senior vice president for finance and operations at a testimony at the Capitol on Jan 15. Abler said the Legislature would like to see the University cut administrative costs instead.  

“It seems to me that they could take some of [the tuition funding] out of the admin side,” he said. “There’s a break-point, and I don’t know when that happens. I don’t know how many students won’t be able to go [to school] because of the increases.”

Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said he’s understanding of the University’s need to increase tuition even with a fully-funded request. 

“The $87 million is for operating and general costs around the University, and the 2 percent [tuition increase for in-state students] would be outside of that,” Clausen said. “The Legislature in general wants to keep tuition down, there’s no question about that, but the University is a pretty intensive institution. To have a zero budget increase is really difficult.”

Clausen said that he’s open to discussions of tuition freezes, but a permanent freeze isn’t sustainable. 

House higher education committee chair Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, said one of her biggest priorities this session is freezing tuition. She said even if the University cannot allot budget allocations to prevent tuition increases, it should look into alternative means of cutting costs. 

“You can freeze tuition and reduce quality of programs, but I don’t think people want that. … I think we need to figure out how we’ll solve this, whether it’s savings in the systems and how we do business, if its investing money into how to buy down those tuition increases,” Bernardy said. 

A projected $1.5 billion state budget surplus was announced in December. Another forecast, set to be announced in February, will give lawmakers a better idea of how the University’s request will fare when the Legislature disperses funds. 

“That will be a better indication of what will happen but we know our goal and strong desire is working toward freezing tuition in an honest way,” Bernardy said.