U students protest budget cuts

More than 500 students began the day at Coffman Union.

Hundreds of students joined in singing the “Minnesota Rouser” in Coffman Union on Thursday and hoped their chorus would reach the State Capitol.

“We understand budget deficits, but you can never go wrong with funding higher education because it’s the backbone of any society,” said Kevin Vogeltanz from the University’s Morris campus.

More than 500 students from all four University campuses rallied in Coffman’s Great Hall to eat lunch and receive their “talking points” before asking state lawmakers to head off higher education budget cuts and tuition hikes.

With the Morris campus cheerleading team on hand to boost morale, speakers urged students to show legislators the personal cost of funding cuts.

“In the past weeks legislators have heard from every group affected by higher education funding,” said Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring and House Higher Education Finance Committee chairman. “I think it’s important to have the students express their views.”

Stang said funding for higher education will be cut, but students could affect how deeply the cuts are felt.

Some students worry the cuts will hit the middle class hardest.

Junior Tricia Malo, a history major from Kansas, said she qualifies for some student aid but cannot afford to pay more tuition. She said a tuition increase would heavily affect out-of-state students, who already pay higher tuition.

“I want to get my message across that I can’t afford another double-digit tuition increase,” Malo said.

Vogeltanz called the funding cuts a “quick fix” the state will feel in the future.

“We should remember not just the hard times and reality of today, but remember the longstanding relationship between the state and the ‘U’ of ‘M,’ ” Vogeltanz said.

The funding cuts are more likely to hurt the state budget than help it, said Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.

Instead, the Legislature could turn the economy around by encouraging students to graduate college, get jobs and begin paying off loans, he said.

In response to a “cut University waste” sign in the audience, University President Robert Bruininks called the University a “relatively frugal institution.”

“The ability to receive an affordable higher education transformed my life,” said Bruininks, who said he worked his way through school. “This is one of the state’s best assets and the way this state invests in its future.”

The projected cut in the University budget would equal the total state funding for the College of Biological Sciences, the Institute of Technology and the College of Liberal Arts combined for two years, Bruininks said.

‘I’m begging you’

Students told the Senate Higher Education Budget Division that funding cuts will hurt students and limit the University’s ability to serve the state.

“We come here recognizing that the state has a $5 billion deficit. Budget cuts are inevitable,” said Andy Pomroy, Minnesota Student Association Legislative Affairs Committee chairman.

Pomroy acknowledged the necessity of the budget cuts but asked the committee to minimize them as much as possible.

Many of the students testifying said Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan to take $60 million from the University and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system budgets to put into the state grant program does not make sense.

Tuition increases as a result of budget cuts will not be entirely made up for with the increased grant money, Pomroy said, leaving a greater tuition burden for students.

He added that the plan would not save the state money and that MSA almost unanimously passed a resolution against such a funding shift.

University student Scott LeBlanc told the committee that part of the reason the Twin Cities is such a powerful Midwest region is because of its great academic resources.

LeBlanc said that when he decided where to go to college, he observed that most of the people he knew, such as doctors, dentists and teachers, got their degrees from the University.

“I’m begging you,” LeBlanc said to the committee. “The University of Minnesota has so many opportunities. Funding needs to stay at a decent level.

“I am unbelievably indebted to the ‘U’ of ‘M,’ ” LeBlanc said.

Lawmakers heard some dissent, however, when students testified before the House Higher Education Finance Committee.

“We can’t rely on other people to take the majority of the burden,” said University political science junior Dan Nelson. “Most of us in the middle class can take an extra loan out. We have to make the investment ourselves for our own education.”

Physics sophomore J.D. Hoverman told the House committee he left the University’s Duluth campus 15 years ago after a tuition increase and had only recently re-enrolled after repaying his loans.

“I’m not going to give you an example of what might happen,” he said. “I’m an example of what did happen.”

“The state has given massive tax cuts to every other demographic but killed students with tuition raises,” Pomroy said. “Many students, by choice or by force, pay for their entire education on their own. These students are hit twice as hard.

“We cannot afford to have the state balance its books on our backs,” he said.

Patricia Drey covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]

Emily Johns covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]