ST. PAUL — Students and faculty of Minnesota State colleges and universities agree that state lawmakers should prioritize curbing tuition costs as they consider a request for additional funding.
The school system is requesting $178 million in additional state funding, which would include $143 million in campus support that would allow another two-year tuition freeze across the system.
Mary Spindler, a nursing student and student senate member at Minnesota State College Southeast, said she was "thrilled" by the past tuition decrease and hopes lawmakers shift more attention to two-year schools.
"I'm hoping the legislation looks at that piece of the pie as a little larger," she said. "Community colleges provide the education needed by individuals who will be the employees of the future, especially for regional businesses throughout the state or outside of the metro areas."
Lawmakers' approval of the additional funding also would result in a 1 percent tuition decrease for the system's two-year colleges, which also received the same decrease two years ago.
Minnesota State College Student Association, which represents students at Minnesota State community and technical colleges, cited data from the Chronicle of Higher Education ranking Minnesota as the state with the third-highest tuition for public two-year colleges.
Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, whose district is home to both a Minnesota State university and two-year school, said two-year schools are gaining recognition as viable options for students, but the state must maintain a "fine balance" between universities and two-year colleges.
"One caution I have is that we don't focus so much on vocational schools or two-year schools that we don't lose focus on value that a four-year education can be," he said. "Ultimately, it comes down to being able to provide access to people, regardless of if they want to get."
Joe Wolf, state chairman for Students United in Minnesota, said the best form of financial aid is affordable tuition. Students United, an organization representing students throughout the seven Minnesota State universities, advocates raising state contribution to higher education from the current from 47 percent to 67 percent. When state support falls, as it has in some recent years, tuition and other revenues must make up the difference, higher education officials say.
"I know for students that are attending and future students that will attend, affordability is a big driver of why they attend Minnesota State schools," Wolf said. "We definitely don't want to see tuition go up. Keep it affordable."
A portion of the additional funding the system seeks would allocate $10 million for student incentives.
The funding would cover one-time grants of $500 to students who do well in classes but are at risk for dropping out, or a $500 scholarship for students who complete a two-year degree and pursue a related bachelor's degree at a four-year university within the system.
Kayley Schoonmaker, Bemidji State University Student Senate president, said $500 would not only provide financial relief, but motivation for students.
"It means someone believes in you and wants to help you, and I think our students struggle with that," she said. "So many of our students are working full time jobs or multiple jobs. Some students have talked about transferring over a $50 fee. Every little bit matters; $50 could be two weeks of groceries for students."
Minnesota State faculty worry insufficient funding could impede the quality of students' education as vacant positions remain unfilled or filled by part-time employees, who she said typically focus more on teaching classes than advising students or developing research schedules.
"When you don't have the full personnel for a program, that means everyone's doing extra work," said Magdalene Chalikia, a professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and president of the faculty association there. "That then means anything extra we're doing that would be useful experiences outside the classroom, things that students don't pay for on a credit basis for necessarily, we don't do them, and students lose out."
Executive Director Mike Dean of Minnesota State College Student Association said that he is optimistic about new Republican leadership in Minnesota because House Republicans have previously supported affordability of two-year colleges.
"They actually understand the value that Minnesota's community and technical colleges bring to the demand of Minnesota's businesses," he said. "If we're not getting folks at least an associate's degree, Minnesota will continue to have a workforce shortage."
Although Schoonmaker said the Bemidji State Student Senate has had to adjust how they pitch the budget request to new Republican leadership, she shared Dean's optimism for gaining their support.
"When it comes to talking to Republicans, I think they're really interested in workforce development and the economy," she said. "I think that will be really appealing to them, and we'll have a good shot at it."