Conflicting priorities emerge as UMN works to readjust tuition

Recent tuition hikes for non-resident students fit into the University’s broader efforts to move to the middle of the Big Ten. But there are mixed views on the University’s changing tuition and its potential effects on enrollment.

The University's Board of Regents convene at the McNamara Alumni Center on Friday, Feb. 8.

Jack Rodgers

The University’s Board of Regents convene at the McNamara Alumni Center on Friday, Feb. 8.

Austen Macalus

As the University of Minnesota works to readjust tuition on the Twin Cities campus, there are conflicting priorities about how the University should balance costs for Minnesota students and those from other states. 

The University expects to bump resident tuition by 2 percent next year, according to President Eric Kaler. That comes on the heels of a 10 percent tuition hike for incoming non-resident, non-reciprocity students and 5.5 percent for non-residents already here, which the Board of Regents approved in December. 

The latest round of tuition increases are part of the University’s broader strategy: moving tuition for non-residents to the middle of the Big Ten and keeping resident tuition increases to a minimum.   

However, not everyone agrees about where the University should drawn the line on tuition while still looking out for the school’s bottom line.

Some regents are criticizing another resident tuition increase, saying the University isn’t doing enough to prioritize Minnesota students. For non-resident tuition, dramatic hikes in recent years are hurting efforts to attract students from across the country, though school officials say increases are necessary to bring the University in line with its peers. And most students remain opposed to tuition increases of any kind, which they say unfairly burden students and their families.

These divergent views underscore the University’s difficult position when it comes to setting tuition, increasing enrollment and maintaining its standing as a top institution.  

Acting Provost Bob McMaster said it’s difficult to find an equilibrium among the University’s goals. 

“Over the last few years we’ve kind of had it all. Until last year, we’d been increasing the size of the class, we’ve been increasing diversity, tuition rates have been going up, we’ve been increasing the ACT [scores] and we’ve been increasing all our [graduation] rates,” McMaster said. “But there’s a limit to all of that. And I think what we’re experiencing now is a limit.” 

Bringing tuition in line

The University currently sits just above the middle of the Big Ten range for resident tuition on the Twin Cities campus. Non-resident tuition is a different story. 

Tuition for non-resident, non-reciprocity students was among the lowest in the Big Ten after the school significantly dropped non-resident tuition a decade ago in a concerted plan to improve out-of-state recruitment. In recent years, the school has been reversing that trend. 

During Kaler’s tenure, tuition for non-resident students has increased by 9 percent per year on average. In that same time, resident tuition has increased by around 1.5 percent per year on average, which is below yearly inflation rates. 

The University aims to raise non-resident tuition and fees to approximately $35,000 by the 2020-21 school, meaning even more tuition hikes are likely in the coming years. 

McMaster said the University sets tuition rates with different considerations for in-state students versus those from other states. 

“For Minnesota, it’s what do we think is fair. What do we think is fair for Minnesotans,” he said. “For non-resident students the question is what’s the market [rate].”

However, increases to non-resident tuition could complicated the University’s five-year enrollment goals to bring in more out-of-state students and increase “geographic diversity,” which were approved by regents in 2016. 

After implementing a 15 percent tuition increase for incoming non-resident students last year — by far the most dramatic in the Big Ten — the University saw a 26 percent drop in the number of non-resident, non-reciprocity students, which University officials attributed in part to raising non-resident tuition. 

It was the first major decrease in non-resident, non-reciprocity students in over a decade. There were slight decreases in 2016, 2014 and 2009, but all were less than a 4 percent drop.  

“We’re moving fairly quickly to the middle of the Big Ten. When we get there I think there’s going to have to be a reflection of what did that do to our yield rates,” McMaster said.

The University is now taking steps like adding regional recruiters and adjusting financial aid, which McMaster said he hopes will combat the recent decline. 

Though he supported the increase, Board Chair David McMillan said in an emailed statement, “We need to be careful not to over-correct and adversely affect our ability to continue bringing the best from around the world to the University of Minnesota.”

However, Austin Kraft, student representative to the board, said he is concerned at the rapid rate of tuition increase and its negative impact on students looking to come to the University

“At the aggressive pace in which tuition is being increased, it poses a significant challenge to a lot of students,” Kraft said. “To students and their families, it doesn’t seem like the solution or a sustainable one.”

A Minnesota-first mentality

Even with substantial non-resident tuition hikes every year of President Kaler’s tenure, some regents don’t think the University is going far enough. 

“We will have to have additional increases in the future if we want to get there [to the middle of the Big Ten],” said Regent Michael Hsu. “I would have hoped that we would have gotten there already.”

Hsu said the University could lower tuition for Minnesota students if the school started charging out-of-state students more. 

His view is echoed by others on the board, including Regent Darrin Rosha, who said he would like the University to do more to keep tuition low for Minnesota students. 

Hsu and Rosha said the University’s relatively high resident tuition means that Minnesota students are essentially subsidizing out-of-state students’ tuition. 

“If you look across the country, we have been almost singular in what others states … consider disfavoring resident students,” Rosha said.  “[Minnesota students] and their families have supported the University through their contributions to the state coffers — they should have that access.”

In recent years, the University has taken steps to readjust. In Kaler’s first year, the difference between resident and non-resident tuition was $5,000 more for out-of-state students. Now, non-resident tuition is more than double what Minnesotan students pay.  

Although resident tuition has increased at a far lower rate than non-resident tuition, Hsu said tuition for Minnesota students can be even lower. At this month’s board meeting, he advocated for a tuition freeze for resident tuition, an issue he’s raised before. 

University administration also supports limiting resident tuition hikes, but a tuition freeze doesn’t look likely. Kaler said the University would still likely bump up resident tuition next year even if the University’s full $87 million legislative request is fulfilled, a move criticized by many lawmakers who would like to see the school hold the line on Minnesota tuition.

For Hsu, keeping Minnesota tuition low is vital as a public land grant institution.  

“Our mission is to educate Minnesota students. We do not have a mission to educate non-Minnesota students,” Hsu said. “If you’re an Illinois students and if money is a concern for you, you should be going to the University of Illinois.”