House funding plan better for U students

A conference committee of the Minnesota Legislature will compare House and Senate bills this week that differ significantly in their approach to keeping college affordable. Although both bills would generously fund the University and MnSCU systems, the Senate plan calls for an increase in student financial aid while the House proposes a cap on tuition increases. Both bills seek to make education more affordable for students — one by jacking up grants and loans, the other by keeping direct costs at reasonable levels. Although both ideas have merit, the House version is better for public education in the long run.
For years, University students have lobbied the Legislature to hold tuition increases to a minimum. Unlike a generation ago, most students today hold part-time jobs or assume massive debt in order to finance their education. Unfortunately, tuition hikes — in public as well as private schools — remain constant. These annual increases, which usually outpace inflation, have the consequence of spreading students’ resources even thinner. This detracts from the educational experience and prolongs the time it takes for students to graduate.
The House bill attempts to remedy this persistent problem by limiting the amount that tuition can increase during the next two years to the rate of inflation. The Senate bill, meanwhile, would lower students’ cost as well, but in a different manner. It would provide more grants and loans for low-income students while giving less direct funding to public institutions. Although efforts to ease the burden on low-income families must remain a priority, this bill ignores the concerns of those middle-income families who also find higher education unduly expensive.
Public education, despite the grumblings of would-be reformers in the Legislature, has served Minnesotans admirably for decades. The University, in particular, has built a variety of strong academic programs in large part because the school has remained affordable to those interested in pursuing an education. Allowing tuition to spiral out of control will be a hard course of action to reverse. It’s unlikely to ever decrease, and there is no guarantee that high-financial aid packages will be approved in the future.
The high-tuition/high-aid model, supporters say, will give students and their families more choice in education. Students could use higher aid packages to attend private colleges or out-of-state universities. Although these are legitimate benefits, they are addressed to some degree by Pell Grants, direct loans and other federal programs. The state, for its part, should make sure that public higher education remains affordable for every citizen. Capping tuition to the inflation rate, even for a short time, goes a long way toward achieving that.
With money in its coffers, the Legislature has wisely focused its attention this year on higher education. Both chambers realize that keeping it affordable is a no-brainer; they just have different approaches to accomplishing that goal. Although the Senate plan seeks new solutions to a perennial problem, it ignores middle-class concerns and caters to private institutions at the expense of public education. The House plan targets the root of the problem — high tuition — and seeks to temper it.