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Legislature’s influence on tuition rates is limited, state leader says

published 3/4/2013
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Minnesota lawmakers intent on controlling the cost of higher education need to remember that their ability to influence tuition rates is limited, a key state leader told them on Monday.

Legislators have made it plain that they’re upset about student tuition and debt levels, which have risen in a decade that has also seen declines in state aid for higher education. This year, in exchange for a requested two-year bump of $91.6 million in state aid, the University of Minnesota has pledged to freeze undergraduate tuition for Minnesota residents for the next two years.

But lawmakers need to keep in mind that government aid is just one source of higher education revenue in Minnesota, said Larry Pogemiller, director of the Office of Higher Education. “You’re in a market system that you don’t totally control,” he told the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. In balancing their budgets, university presidents and trustees must consider competing needs, which include attracting a strong workforce and student body, he said.

Monday’s tuition discussion arose during a presentation by the Office of Higher Education that is expected to continue on Wednesday. The office is giving House members an overview of postsecondary education in Minnesota, including enrollment, graduation rates, and degrees awarded. Much of that data can be found in a report released by the office last month.

Families and students pay nearly 80 percent of the cost of undergraduate education with their own savings, income and borrowing, according to Pogemiller’s office.

Legislators may be able to cut short-term deals whereby universities freeze tuition in exchange for public funding, he said. Long-term, though, their ability to control the higher education market “is probably less than you would like it to be.”

Some House members aren’t ready to give up the fight to manage the postsecondary costs borne by students. “I think, functionally, we could do it. The question is whether we have the persistence and the political will to continue on that path,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley).

- Sarah Lemagie


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