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University of Minnesota students start fall classes
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Students and their parents moving into a residence halls at the University of Minnesota. (MPR News/Marisa Helms)
Tens of thousands of students start classes on Tuesday at the University of Minnesota. While many freshmen say they are excited about the challenges of being in college and away from home for the first time, older students say tuition increases and scarce part time employment mean a stressful and hectic lifestyle.

Minneapolis, Minn. — It's move-in day at the University of Minnesota. There's a kind of organized chaos. Carts wheel back and forth to deliver piles of furniture custom-sized for a dorm room, and all clumped outside the massive residence halls on the Minneapolis campus.

Parents stand watch over their kid's stuff as their son or daughter runs off to register a room.

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Image A living learning community

"Well, of course there's the computer with the subwoofer in the speakers, a little refrigerator he brought from home, a few clothes, and a Vikings banner, that's about it," notes Betsy Wolff, describing the necessities her son Ryan has brought with him.

Wolff's son is going to be living in a "living learning community" in Frontier Hall. Learning communities are part of a growing trend on large college campuses. Students in similar fields of study live together on one or two dormitory floors. The idea is to create small intimate learning environments around the interests of students and make a huge university campus a bit more digestible.

"I chose the learning community because it offered added benefits that you couldn't get in regular dorms. So, I thought that was an asset and could help my college career," he says.

University President Robert Bruininks says the living learning communities concept is one of the ways the University of Minnesota is focused on students' academic and social life on campus.

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Image A student moment

"This university is not going to stand still. We know we have economic challenges, we're going to really work creatively, and try to use our resources as efficiently as we possibly can, and we're going to keep moving forward and keep this university strong for future generations of Minnesotans," according to Bruininks.

Bruininks says his convocation speech on the first day of classes will aim to inspire the 5,000 plus students that make up the Twin Cities campus class of 2007.

He'll address the importance of integrity and community service, and having a well balanced life that leaves room for family and friends, and not just homework and the part time job.

He says though tuition is up about 15 percent this fall at the Twin Cities campus. He wants students to know attending the university is still affordable. "We're going to do everything we can to keep higher education accessible and affordable on all the University of Minnesota campuses. But it is somewhat challenging for all of us right now, and I think we have to recognize the impact of these increases on the students and their families," says Bruininks.

Bruininks says lower income students should not see any appreciable rise in their costs because they'll be covered by state, federal and university financial aid programs. He says the university is budgeting $3.5 million a year in additional student aid and will raise private scholarship funds over next two years.

Minnesota Students Association President and senior Eric Dyer says tuition is just part of the financial picture. "Students aren't just getting hit with tuition. They're getting hit with one of the highest housing markets in the nation, getting hit with parking rates around here - on campus parking is just unbelievable. I mean, even the standard of living in the Twin Cities is definitely a lot higher than most of the students who come here to go to the university are used to, or even expecting."

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Image Student leaders

Dyer says most students need to find part time and on campus jobs to make ends meet. But he adds that even student workers are feeling the pinch of a tight economy.

"We keep incurring debt, but we keep working, and I mean, last year, I worked at a stock broking firm. Now I'm working as a janitor from 3 o'clock until midnight. I mean, the jobs just aren't out there. And even if you get the degree, it doesn't mean you're going to get the job anymore. So it's a tough choice to to go to school now."

Dyer says while going to college is stressful, he would never discourage anyone from the experience and getting a degree.

The new University of Minnesota bookstore in the freshly remodeled Coffman Union is a cross between a college store and a Barnes and Noble. With classes starting, students and their parents are clogging the cash registers to pay for books that will set many of them back hundreds of dollars.

A bookstore clerk helps Donovan Goertzen of Savage and and his freshman son Donovan Goertzen, II, locate the books he'll need. Goertzen the elder says while the cost of college is always a concern, he invested his son's school savings and says he is fortunate to be able to pay, despite the tuition increase. He says he'd like to see more support for public higher education, but would also like to see improved efficiency from the state and the university.

"From a personal standpoint, I work in large corporations. But I think, strong corporate leadership in finance and control could do a lot better than what's been done in this state. So, what the students pay is a very fair price, but I think it could be managed better," according to Geortzen.

President Bruininks says the university is working hard to do more with less this school year.

The U's state appropriation was reduced by $185 million the last legislative session, prompting the tuition increases this year and next. And the smaller budget has also meant layoffs. About 300 employees have been cut already, and another 200 positions will be eliminated through attrition. And, the university is proposing a wage freeze for all employees, and changes to the university's health plan including higher premiums copays and prescription costs.

Two university unions had threatened to strike over the proposals. The Teamsters Local 320 just reached a tentative agreement with the university that will have to be voted on by 1,400 members. Officials for another union of about 1,800 campus clerical workers -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3800 -- say their members are willing to strike if they can't reach an agreement with the university.

University officials say a strike by AFSCME workers would have minimal impact on students. Union leadership disagrees. They say the university cannot function effectively without its clerical workers.

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