Is the University of Minnesota doing enough to be affordable?

UMN and river

A little back-and-forth has sprouted up in the Star Tribune over the affordability of a University of Minnesota education.

(Reminds me a bit of comments I’ve recently posted here and here.)

On June 7, the Strib printed this letter from a reader:

Attending will remain costly on a net basis

Any enthusiastic support for the University of Minnesota’s decision to freeze undergraduate tuition (“Regents, students like U tuition relief,” June 6) is grossly premature. This initiative fails to address the real problem, that being the net cost of attending the university.

Freezing tuition will not necessarily decrease the average debt load. Rather, undergraduates will continue to owe $20,000-plus on average at graduation time.

In addition, the university’s financial aid packages are significantly lower than those offered by other state and private higher-education institutions, as experienced by the high school seniors I used to teach.

Many of my poorer students were forced to take their general courses at lower-cost community colleges simply because the net cost of attending the U was way out of reach. Also, many of my students received much better net-cost arrangements from some of Minnesota’s more-prestigious private colleges.

Our legislators ought to investigate the net cost of learning at the U rather than the gross cost, especially when they compare financial-aid arrangements made to poorer Minnesota residents as opposed to out-of-state students.

The university’s bias against poorer students is also demonstrated every year when officials at the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses refuse to participate in the no-fee Application Week for Minnesota high school seniors. Almost all other Minnesota colleges — public and private — gladly participate.

Howard W. Schwartz, Golden Valley

That prompted a response today by vice provost Robert B. McMaster:


 The University of Minnesota is improving access to a world-class education for Minnesota undergraduates from all socioeconomic backgrounds, despite claims by a recent letter writer (Readers Write, June 7).

Among the 68 schools in Minnesota offering four-year degrees, the Twin Cities campus ranks 54th in overall net price, making it among the most affordable options for Minnesota residents. For students from the lowest-income families, earning less than $30,000, our Twin Cities, Duluth, Morris and Crookston campuses have the four lowest average net prices of all four-year institutions in Minnesota — lower than any other Minnesota public, private or for-profit school.

In 2011-12, undergraduates on our campuses received $191 million in scholarships, a 47 percent increase over 2007-08. A crucial source of support for many students is the U Promise Scholarship, initiated in 2007-08 to enhance access for low-income students and expanded in 2009-10 to include middle-income students.

In 2012-13, the U Promise program provided more than $30 million in scholarships to students, improving access and affordability to our campuses for more than 13,500 Minnesotans.

Since fall 2007, in fact, we have approximately tripled the amount of need-based financial aid distributed to Minnesota students through our U Promise program.

Meanwhile, this fall the U is launching the President’s Emerging Scholars program to assist less-prepared, underserved students with scholarships and academic support. The program will serve 450 students and includes a $1,000 scholarship in year one and, if the student is on track to graduate, an additional $1,000 scholarship in year four.

In addition to providing more need-based aid, last year the U held resident undergraduate tuition to its lowest percentage increase in a generation and, in cooperation with state policymakers, will freeze resident undergraduate tuition at all campuses for the next two years.

University leadership also supported state and federal government reinvestments in financial aid grants, which will provide 11,000 undergraduate students an average increase of more than $800 a year. In addition, the U waives the admission application fee for low-income students, as part of our commitment to access and affordability.

The U is aware of the difficult economic circumstances facing many Minnesota students and their families, and continues to strengthen its commitment to providing a world-class education to students from all socioeconomic groups.