House committee: Tuition cap? Freeze? Neither?

Cap or freeze, it's a tough call

The companion bill to Sen. John Carlson’s (R-Bemidji) tuition-freeze proposal hit the House higher ed committee today, causing Democrats to question both its constitutionality and effect on colleges and universities.

Bill HF856, authored by committee member Bruce Vogel (R-Willmar) and seven other non-committee Republicans, would institute a two-year tuition freeze beginning July 1, but also cap tuition at the level of inflation as indicated by the Consumer Price Index.

The bill is part of a structural reform that “puts revenue into the classroom” and trims administrative costs, said Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent).

He added:

“It’s time we send a message that we’re serious about reforming all aspects of government, including higher education.”

Representative Tom Rukavina (D-Virginia) and other Democrats said the bill may be unconstitutional because the University of Minnesota is independent of the legislature, or unfair if it excludes the U of M and focuses only on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.

He also questioned whether the two systems might get around the intent of the bill by jacking up fees to compensate, though student leader Travis Johnson later said students are protected by fee caps.

Rukavina told the panel that he has tried unsuccessfully to write bills curbing administrative spending, but found they could have too many unintended consequences:

It’s so hard to write (these cuts) into statute. … I don’t think this’ll help; it’ll just hurt.

Officials from MnSCU and the U panned the bill, saying it would force cuts that would ultimately harm students by causing schools to enlarge classes and cut course offerings and services.

Dawn Reimer, CFO of North Hennepin Community College, saidit would “hurt (the) college, its students and employees.”

It would force another $3 million in cuts to her campus in 2012, she said, and prompt the college to:

  • cut all repair and replacement projects by half;
  • leave 10 nonfaculty positions vacant;
  • use more part-time employees
  • reduce the technology budget by 50 percent
  • cut the student services budget in half
  • turn off the parking lot lights
  • add one more student to each open class section

Systemwide, she said:

Physical improvements would be stalled. The quality of education would be compromised. And large investments (in capital projects) would be necessary in the future.

Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) wondered whether a “guaranteed tuition program” (which sounds similar to the heating bill programs on offer) would help students budget expenses by taking out the volatility of tuition hikes.

Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud) questioned whether a market-based approached to tuition — with more expensive programs charging more tuition — might be the way to go.

Donna Peterson of the University of Minnesota’s Office of Government Relations said cuts could reduce need-based scholarships, and standing curbs on university revenues could hurt the university’s bond rating:

“The market … would not look favorably on that.”

And students?

Last month, MnSCU students were appreciative of Sen. Carlson’s bill, but thought a tuition freeze wasn’t such a hot idea, saying a cap wouldn’t force cuts that harm schools the way they thought a freeze would.

They made similar noises this time, appreciating the cap but nervous about the idea of a freeze. Student leaders said they were hoping that tuition hikes wouldn’t be more than 5 percent.

Here’s the text of the bill:

Section 1. [136F.702] TUITION INCREASE LIMITATIONS.

1.7Tuition increases for a Minnesota resident undergraduate student from one academic

1.8year to the next academic year at an institution in the Minnesota State Colleges and

1.9Universities system may not exceed the annual percentage increase in the Consumer Price

1.10Index for all urban consumers, published by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics,

1.11for the immediately preceding calendar year.

1.12EFFECTIVE DATE.This section applies to tuition increases for an academic year

1.13commencing after July 1, 2013.

1.14 Sec. 2. [137.0227] TUITION INCREASE LIMITATIONS.

1.15Tuition increases for a Minnesota resident undergraduate student from one academic

1.16year to the next academic year at the University of Minnesota may not exceed the annual

1.17percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers, published by

1.18the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the immediately preceding calendar year.

1.19EFFECTIVE DATE.This section applies to tuition increases for an academic year

1.20commencing after July 1, 2013.

2.1 Sec. 3. TUITION FREEZE AT MINNESOTA STATE COLLEGES AND

2.2UNIVERSITIES.

2.3Tuition at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities for Minnesota resident

2.4undergraduate students may not be increased for academic terms commencing between

2.5July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013.

2.6 Sec. 4. TUITION FREEZE AT UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA.

2.7Tuition at the University of Minnesota for a Minnesota resident undergraduate

2.8student may not be increased for academic terms commencing between July 1, 2011,

2.9and June 30, 2013.