What people told University of Minnesota officials about the budget for next year

Going over the numbers. (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

Here are some highlights from the University of Minnesota regents’ meeting and public forum on next year’s budget.

It attracted almost two dozen speakers from the U community. Kaler got kudos for getting the legislature to fund a two-year tuition freeze as well as its big MnDRIVE research initiative.

Regents seemed fairly pleased with the budget, but the report also drew several concerns:

Undergraduate tuition. The two-year freeze did draw praise all around, though a couple of regents sounded a little nervous about where it and higher university spending would put the U two years from now. Regent John Frobenius said, “Every time there’s a freeze, there’s a cliff to climb at the end of the freeze.” Regent Laura Brod, agreed, saying she wanted to make sure that students “wouldn’t have a big leap” in tuition at the end of the two years, and that higher spending by the U wouldn’t “eat up the freeze that we all care a lot about.”

Graduate and professional tuition. Frobenius echoed other speakers’ concerns that the U was perhaps “not being responsive” to graduate tuition — which is increasing 3 percent next year in most areas. University public health professor Russell Luepker told the board that tuition at the U’s medical school is among the top five in the nation. He says med students with big debt tend to avoid critical but lower-paid areas of care such as family medicine in favor of more lucrative specialties. He added:

“And they tend not to work in outstate Minnesota where the need is greatest. Being first in tuition and student debt is not an aspirational goal.”

The middle class. Both outgoing student body President Taylor Williams and regent Laura Brod both expressed concern that middle-income students were being squeezed out of college. Broad said she was worried that many don’t qualify for any type of aid — and yet face increasing costs, especially in professional school. She told the board:

“They don’t have access to aid, because they make too much, and they don’t have access to the dollars to put into the system, because they make too little. So I worry a little bit about that group of people and how that impacts our rural communities, how that impacts our state.”

Williams asked the board to increase need-based aid for lower- and middle-income students. When I asked him afterward what he thought of the way aid would be divvied up under next year’s budget — a $2.9 million increase for merit aid, compared to nothing additional for need-based aid — he told me:

“I don’t want to see the University of Minnesota moving in a direction where we’re only catering to certain social groups. We should be catering to all members of the community and making sure that higher education is accessible for everyone.”

When I asked regent Clyde Allen to comment, he said the U had invested a lot in need-based aid in previous years.

Spending. Despite millions in recent cuts, U officials continued to take criticism. Undergraduate neuroscience student Ryan Strait rattled off a litany of statistics suggesting a bloated administration and skyrocketing student costs. He said, “The U is happily plodding toward a level of unsustainable level of expense that relies on students and the state to support the bill, without truly driving to provide a quality, low-cost education.”

He drew some laughs when he added:

“Unfortunately, we may not be the best research university in the world, but considering the money flow, we’re arguably one of the best administrated.”

Regents also got hit by members of AFSCME Local 3800, the union representing clerical workers. Caitlin Boley said cuts have come at the expense of workers, while management has not taken on a fair share of the burden. Since October 2008, she said, the number of clerical jobs has decreased by 9.76 percent. Management, meanwhile, has increased by 5.43 percent. She asked regents:

“Have they made the same sacrifices they demanded of other university employees? As a group, they have not.”

The Board of Regents is expected to vote on the budget June 14.