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Minnesota tuition hikes capped at 4 percent

ST. PAUL - Students at Minnesota's 32 state colleges and universities can expect up to a 4 percent tuition increase this fall and hope for a smaller boost next year.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees on Wednesday approved a 2008 budget, formalizing its plan to limit tuition increases to 4 percent for full-time students during the 2007-08 academic year.

Trustees also signaled they are interested in lowering tuition increases even further for 2008-09, but they won't make that decision until early next year.

College students said they appreciated the board's decision but wanted bolder action. Scott Formo, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association, told board members they should take a "firmer stance" toward addressing tuition relief.

"It leaves things a little more vague," he said of the trustees' decision. Formo, an Alexandria Technical College student, said the board now has the flexibility to come back early next year and say it cannot lower tuition hikes any further.

The board has committed to slowing tuition increases, trustee Thomas Renier of Duluth said, noting members imposed the 4 percent cap before knowing how much new state money the system would receive.

"That's the one really strong message we sent," Renier said.

The board's decision follows an aggressive lobbying campaign by college students and their supporters.

They appealed to lawmakers before and during the 2007 legislative session - complaining of being the victims of state budget cuts in recent years - often to sympathetic audiences.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature last month agreed on a two-year state budget that spends an additional $152 million on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses. That brought the system's total state funding to $1.35 billion, a 12.6 percent increase.

In approving the budget plan Wednesday, the Board of Trustees ordered staff to prepare a report documenting the expected impact of even smaller tuition increases for 2008-09.

Trustees said they want to consider using all of the system's funding sources to implement no higher than a 2 percent increase for two-year colleges and a 3 percent increase for universities in 2008-09. Tuition at the state's two-year colleges is near the highest in the nation.

Waiting until early 2008 to set tuition for the second year of the biennium is a responsible approach, said Carol Wenner, a student trustee from Alexandria. She joined others in opposing using funds slated for technology improvements to buy down tuition hikes.

"Tuition is a huge issue for students, but quality (education) is too," Wenner said. "Finding that balance is important."

At nearly half of the campuses, students actually will see tuition increases of less than 4 percent during the upcoming term.

Additional state funding and the trustees' action "has put a stop-gap on those double-digit (tuition increases)," said Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical President Jim Johnson.

Students at Southeast Technical's Red Wing and Winona campuses can expect a 3.75 percent tuition hike next year, Johnson said. That is an improvement over the past few years when tuition increases were more than twice that, Johnson said.