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MnSCU Trustees approve budget, reject tuition freeze
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Students who support a tuition freeze attended a recent MnSCU board of trustees meeting -- wearing winter clothes to symbolize the freeze request. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The Board of Trustees for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system voted Wednesday to support a $1.3 billion legislative budget request that includes $67 million in new spending. The budget plan assumes a 4 percent tuition increase for each of the next two years. But students say they've had enough of tuition increases, and they asked for a freeze.

St. Paul, Minn. — About 20 students dressed in wool hats, scarves, gloves and parkas recently filed quietly into the back of a meeting room at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.

The winter clothing symbolized their desire for a tuition freeze. These students say they can't take any more increases, it's time for a freeze.

Chaumany Sysengchanh, a student at St. Cloud State University, told a committee of MnSCU trustees that increased school costs have forced him to work 25 hours a week while taking 15 credit hours at school. He says he barely has time for homework.

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Image MnSCU committee

"Another thing I'm afraid of is the people who grow up in my neighborhood -- how are they going to school when tuition keeps going up," Sysengchanh said. "So I think we want to get rid of poverty, we have to make education more affordable so more students could go to school."

About 15 students testified. They told trustees how hard it is to pay for college and meet expenses like rent, food, and transportation. They say they're taking on more loans and leaving college with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Student representatives say they recognize that the money MnSCU would lose from a two-year tuition freeze would have to come from somewhere. That's why they wanted the trustees to ask the Legislature for another $63 million.

Student representative Justin Paul represents MnSCU's two-year colleges. He says students are committed to the idea and won't give up easily.

If it's a 14-1 vote, then it's a 14-1 vote. I've got to stand firm for what I believe in, and the students I represent.
- Student trustee Tyler Despins, supporting a tuition freeze

"Whether we have support of the Board of Trustees or not, we'll still be going ahead with our campaign with the Legislature to get the additional monies for a 0 percent tuition increase," Paul said.

This fall marks the fourth year in a row MnSCU students have had to pay double-digit tuition increases.

MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick says he respects the students' right to pursue their campaign with lawmakers, but he stopped short of endorsing the plan.

Tuition revenue isn't McCormick's only concern. MnSCU's base funding was cut by $191 million last session. Meanwhile, he says, enrollment swelled at MnSCU's colleges and universities over the past few years as the economy slowed.

During most budget cycles, the state adjusts MnSCU's funding based on an estimate of enrollment. If enrollment goes up, the state puts in more money. If it goes down, the institutions' base budget decreases.

This biennial budget, McCormick says, MnSCU will ask the state for $131 million because enrollment was much higher than expected.

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Image MnSCU student reps

"We're desperately in need of the enrollment money. That's first," McCormick said.

McCormick and some trustees are concerned about whether the system will receive that adjustment money. The Department of Finance, for the first time, is telling public universities to treat the adjustment as a request, meaning they won't automatically get it.

MnSCU's total request is $1.36 billion for the next two years, with students paying $63 million of that in tuition.

McCormick calls it a conservative budget that takes the state's projected budget deficit into consideration.

Because state money will be tight this biennium, some MnSCU officials did not support asking lawmakers and the governor for an additional $63 million to support the tuition freeze.

The MnSCU board of Trustees approved the chancellor's budget request Wednesday on a 7-4 vote, with two members not voting. The student proposal to freeze tuition was defeated on a 7-5 vote.

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