Senate committee discusses tuition freeze bill, state spending

Sen. John Carlson (R-Bemidji) appeared before the state Senate’s higher education committee to discuss his tuition freeze bill, but it became more of a discussion on the state’s responsibility to fund higher education than one on the merits of Carlson’s bill.

Carlson has said the bill is meant to put the subject of state spending and higher-ed administrative costs on the table for discussion. He has said he would welcome a tuition cap (an annual percentage tuition increase the state could not exceed) if a consensus formed around it.

Indeed, at the hearing, students from MnSCU and the University of Minnesota welcomed the spirit of Carlson’s bill,  though they had concerns a freeze would harm the quality of their schools.

Geoff Dittberner, vice president of the Minnesota State College Students Association, told the committee:

“We can’t fully support a freeze on tuition – but we would with legislators on a tuition- and fee cap.”

He was adamant on one thing, however:

Students want to be a part of the budget solution, but are unwilling to be the budget solution.

Students and faculty reps seemed well-received by the committee, a few of whom said the Legislature had neglected higher education spending in years past.

But Sen. John Pederson (R-St. Cloud) seemed skeptical of the state’s responsibility to continue funding higher ed at ever-increasing levels.

In response to testimony by student leader Andrew Spaeth on the state’s ceasing to pay two-thirds of students’ higher-ed costs, Pederson asked:

How much should the state pay? Do you think it’s appropriate for taxpayers to pay two-thirds — no matter what it costs?

He asked Spaeth to poll students and find an answer to that question.

He asked Russ Stanton, director of government relations for the Inter Faculty Organization, why higher education is “three years behind the country in layoffs.” Stanton said one university had lost 10 percent of its faculty, and Pederson countered “manufacturing sectors have dealt with more than 30-40 percent. … But I’m sensitive to the fact that you’ve never experienced that before.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran responded that layoffs occur because there is less demand for the product, which is not the case for higher education. Higher ed, she said, operates under conditions “very different from the conditions in the private marketplace.”

Pederson also asked Stanton whether faculty would support a salary decrease, considering that one salary survey shows U of M faculty earning an average of $125,000. Add a spouse, and income could be as high as $200,000.

Stanton said St. Cloud faculty make an average of about $74,000 a year.

The committee voted to include Carlson’s proposal in the omnibus higher education bill.