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College tuition: How high is up?
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Lord's Hall at Winona State University (Courtesy of MnSCU)
The price of a college education in Minnesota is going up again this fall. The University of Minnesota and the state's two- and four-year colleges are raising tuition by double digits. Despite consecutive years of big tuition hikes at the U and MnSCU, enrollments have grown to record levels at these institutions. Higher education officials say while most students are coming up with the extra cash for college, the trend toward higher tuition is not sustainable in the long run.

St. Paul, Minn. — Starting this fall, a year of courses at the U of M Twin Cities will cost undergraduates about $7,500; that's a 14-percent increase in tuition and fees over last fall.

U of M sophomore Tom Zearley, president-elect of MSA, the association representing students at the U's Twin Cities campuses, is not at all happy about the increase. He says students will have a tough time juggling the tuition hike with other cost increases like housing.

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Image MnSCU Vice Chancellor Linda Kohl

"When tuition all of the sudden keeps on going up, it's causing a great problem. Because students are going to have to start working multiple jobs, which takes away from study time," according to Zearley.

It's the fourth year in a row of double-digit tuition increases for U of M students. It's been three consecutive years for students attending Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, or MnSCU. This fall, MnSCU students will pay an average tuition increase of 12.5 percent.

MnSCU Vice Chancellor Linda Kohl admits by asking students to take on increased costs, MnSCU runs the risk of sidelining its mission to provide access to higher education to all Minnesotans.

"By increasing tuition to the point where students can't afford it, we're afraid that students are just simply not going to be able to attend college. And that would be a serious, serious matter for our state and our state's economy," Kohl says.

Minnesota's economy over the past few years has created the financial challenges that MnSCU and the U of M now face. Minnesota's $4 billion budget shortfall last year led to a historically large cut into both MnSCU's and the U of M's base funding from the state.

Both systems absorbed most of the hit last year in the form of wage freezes and job cuts. While the depth of the cut is not typical, Minnesota is part of a nationwide trend that increasingly favors fewer tax dollars for higher education.

Patrick Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says more and more in recent years, state legislatures have regarded tuition as a "cash cow," a replacement for state investment in higher education.

"High ed was the only major sector -- if you look at the five or six biggest programs the state governments fund -- it took an absolute decline in state resources in state budget dollars by about two percent. And most of that money, not all of it, but most of it, has been money that then the universities then turned around and got from their students through higher tuition," according to Callan.

Though Minnesota's college students may have no choice but to resign themselves to this fall's increases, they are telling university officials that they don't like it, and they can't take much more of it. Some students say they've seen their friends drop out because they couldn't handle the cost.

But, for the most part, despite the rising price tag, enrollment at MnSCU and the UofM is higher than ever. Callan says while today's college-bound kids are able to come up with the money with part time jobs, loans, and financial aid, double-digit tuition increases are not sustainable.

"This is a huge problem, affordability of higher education. People are very worried about this. Even though the middle middle class can solve a lot of this by borrowing, the same families that are getting hit by rising health care costs are getting hit by large tuition," says Callan.

Callan's advice for keeping public higher education affordable requires three things. First, adequate investment from the state. A a commitment from the institutions to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible. And third, he says, states institutions and families have to figure out what is a fair amount to pay for a college education, and stick to that through good times and bad.

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