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Students' turn to complain about budget cuts
A crowd of University of Minnesota students gathered at the state Capitol Thursday to voice their concerns about likely state budget cuts and increased tuition. The students arrived one day after university president Robert Bruininks delivered a similar message to lawmakers. But despite the warning of reduced programs and services, legislators say the current budget deficit means higher education should brace for cutbacks.

St. Paul, Minn. — In the face of a projected $4.2 billion deficit, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has suggested cutting state funding to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities by 10 percent. The University of Minnesota would lose 15 percent. U of M President Robert Bruininks says a reduction that large would seriously hamper the school's ability to attract and retain the best faculty and students. He says he hopes the state can find a way to ease the burden.

"I fully recognize this is not an easy thing to resolve. And we're busy at work trying to figure out how to manage at least what we think will be a very, very difficult situation here in the next few months," he says.

Bruininks says he wants lawmakers to understand the future consequences of substantial funding cuts. He says double-digit tuition increases -- following similar tuition hikes last year -- will only be the start.

House Higher Education chair Doug Stang says he's sympathetic to the University's needs. But Stang, R-Cold Spring, says he's not optimistic legislators will be able to locate additional funds.

"If we receive more money in our target area, obviously we have to cut in other areas," says Stang. "To find those other areas is very difficult. To come up with an extra $20 million to $25 million for the U and for MnSCU is a very difficult process with these tight budget constraints."

Dozens of U of M students appeared at the Capitol Thursday, most urging lawmakers to soften the reductions in Pawlenty's budget. But third-year political science major Dan Nelson says students should be prepared to pay their fair share of costs. Nelson told committee members that he thinks the university could do more to absorb the cuts without a drastic spike in tuition.

"If you make cuts -- and you have to make cuts -- the university should also have to make cuts, just because it is operating under similar circumstances as the state," Nelson says.

Although Pawlenty has recommended significant reductions to the university and to the MnSCU system, he's proposed limiting any tuition increases to 15 percent. And his plan would increase state grants to students by $60 million. Pawlenty administration officials say directing funding to students rather than institutions is preferrable. Among other things, they say it targets aid to those who need help the most, rather than holding down tuition for everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

But third-year pre-nursing student Nicki Lisk says that proposal bypasses many middle-income students who might not qualify for a state grant -- but would nevertheless feel the sting of a tuition increase.

"What is the frequency of that wealthy kid being in there who could pay for it? How much more often does it happen that they'd be a low-income student or a middle-income student who, again, wouldn't benefit from their parents' status, who would have to go and try their hardest to actually pay for tuition. Would that be possible? Would they be able to go to school?" Lisk asks.

Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandy Pappas notes that the governor's proposed increased in state grants barely covers the growth in the enrollment. Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, says once the extra students eat into the pie, there will be little left over to handle increased tuition.

"I just think it's a shame. It's a shame that we cut taxes $5.4 billion over the last five years," Pappas says. "And I just hate to be in state government at a time when we're really losing our quality of life."

Pappas says the needs in higher education are so great -- and the time so short -- it's unlikely new taxes would arrive fast enough to make a difference in the near term.

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