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Higher education bills call for Minnesota State tuition freezes

Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota higher education commissioner, testifies at a Senate higher education hearing on a funding bill he said falls well below the amount Gov. Mark Dayton's wants. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Another tuition freeze could be on the horizon for students at Minnesota State colleges and universities.

Finance bills from the state House and Senate call for a halt to rising tuition costs within the Minnesota State system.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, Senate higher education chairwoman, penned a bill that would block state colleges and universities from raising tuition from 2016-2017 rates for two years.

The House bill would limit the tuition freeze to the system's two-year community and technical colleges. The colleges would be required to establish a tuition freeze for the 2017-2018 academic year, followed by a 1 percent tuition decrease the following year.

Both bills include language barring schools from offsetting tuition changes with student fees.

The legislation would not apply to the University of Minnesota.

The proposed freezes likely come as good news to Minnesota college students, but school administrators said tuition increases may be necessary to make up for funding that falls well below Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal.

Laura King, Minnesota State vice chancellor, said tuition freezes could aggrevate existing financial struggles for the system, which faces a 10 percent student population decrease

"The target in your bill, in combination with language preventing tuition increases, will have very visible impacts in communities across Minnesota," she said during a committee hearing. "To be blunt, the targets in this bill are simply too low, and will have a significant impact on every campus."

House Higher Education Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that although the freeze will benefit students, effects of a freeze two years ago means many colleges "still harbor challenges financially."

"I'm not sure what we'll wind up with this time," he said. "I wish our (spending) target was larger. Since our target's a little lower than projected, a freeze for anybody means it's going to be challenging just to figure out how to do it."

Dayton's proposal allotted nearly $1.5 billion in funding for Minnesota State over two years, a $150 million increase over 2016-2017 appropriations.

The House bill would allocate $1.44 billion, about $40 million more than the system would receive under the Senate bill.

Legislators' bills also would appropriate less funding to the University of Minnesota than Dayton's $1.35 billion proposal, a nearly $94 million increase over 2016-2017 appropriations.

Under the Senate bill, the University of Minnesota would receive $1.28 billion, about $47 million less than what the House proposes.

UMN students are less likely to see a tuition freeze than those at Minnesota State campuses.

The state Constitution allows legislators to recommend a tuition freeze, but not require one.

Nornes said his bill "highly suggests" a freeze, "but they have never listened to us."

"They've told us now, too, regardless of how much money they get from the state, they still plan a tuition increase," he said.

Fischbach's bill will head to the full Senate after the Senate Finance Committee approved it Friday, March 24.

"I would have liked to see more money in this target; we're talking about a lot of workforce issues and attempts to keep tuition down," she said. "Given the targets we were given, we did put together a solid bill."

Legislators' total higher education bills lag behind Dayton's budget plan, which proposed $3.4 billion over two years The House proposed a total of $3.22 billion, while the Senate proposed $3.1 billion.

Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller said he was disappointed by the committees' appropriations for state grants, which cover interstate tuition reciprocity and work-study programs.

Appropriations for grants in the Senate bill, Pogemiller said, only cover about one-third of the increases Dayton proposed.

The House bill allocates about $36 million less to the grants than Dayton, and the Senate bill allocates about $52 million less. "It's just real clear that the right way to help students afford whichever campus they decide to go to is a smart investment," Pogemiller said. "It goes directly to students, and so he thinks that a balanced approach to that, but probably three times the amount that Senate bill allows."