Lawmakers press Kaler on tuition-freeze priority

UMN President Eric Kaler (right) and CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter. (Alex Friedrich / MPR)

Just how far will the University of Minnesota go to pull off another tuition freeze?

President Eric Kaler told today’s House higher-education committee hearing: It depends.

The U has asked lawmakers for $65 million to keep tuition flat for both resident undergraduate and graduate students over the next biennium – as well as tens of millions of dollars for the U’s med school and other initiatives. That would be the second such freeze in a row on undergraduate tuition that’s about $12,000 a year at the Twin Cities campus.

Gov. Mark Dayton said in his budget recommendation that he’ll fund half of what Kaler asked for, saying that he “urges the University to use this additional funding from the state and internal reallocations and cost savings to provide the proposed tuition freeze.”

Today, Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona), long a cost hawk when it comes to the state’s public higher-education systems, asked Kaler where the U’s contribution to the freeze was.

“We did not make that [allocation],” Kaler replied, “because the number we are requesting is what we need to enable there to be no tuition increase. … We know this is the amount of money we need to freeze tuition completely.”

Pelowski asked Kaler why he wasn’t using some the savings from $36 million in administrative cuts for tuition relief.

“If you really were saving something,” the representative asked, “couldn’t you apply it to tuition costs?”

Kaler said the savings have been “reinvested in elements that we think are of better and higher value. If we were to take that [amount] and put it towards a tuition element, then we would be forced to ask you for a larger appropriation to fund the other things that we think drive real value to the state of Minnesota.”

Pelowski said, “I thought freezing tuition was your No. 1 priority. You mean you have priorities above that?”

Kaler said the U had many valuable missions, “so we’re not all about making tuition as low as possible at the sacrifice of other valuable things that we do.”

Pelowski asked Kaler and his staffers to lay out in a later presentation just what the U has cut – and where the savings have gone – to see exactly what would be “a higher priority to your No. 1 priority in your budget that is tuition and debt.”

Fielding another tuition-freeze question from Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano), Kaler said, “We will freeze tuition to the greatest degree we can with the allocation that you give us.”

McDonald told Kaler he wasn’t keen on that with-the-allocation-that-you-give-us qualifier, and the president replied:

“This is a budget that enables great things to be done at the University of Minnesota. And I would like to do those without asking students and their families for a tuition increase. And if that meant altering the amount of money that is in other buckets to be able to freeze tuition, that would be my priority.”