Minnesota Legislature's Tuition Power Grab

Tim Goral's picture
Monday, April 22, 2013

It takes considerable gall for the Minnesota Legislature to deal the state’s two higher-education systems nation-leading cuts in state aid — a nearly 50 percent reduction over the last decade — and then complain about the decisions of the systems’ governing boards to raise tuition.

But Capitol sentiment runs deep this year that tuition increases have gone too far at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and that restoring a portion of previous cuts isn’t sufficient to rein in tuition.

Many legislators want to essentially take over for the governing boards in setting tuition — or at least in freezing it, as the House attempts to do in its omnibus higher-ed bill, or capping it at a 3 percent increase, as a floor amendment to the Senate’s bill does for MnSCU.

(The Senate amendment tacitly acknowledges that the Legislature has limited ability to tread on the Board of Regents’ constitutionally protected turf. But the House seeks to coerce the regents to do the Legislature’s bidding by directing state officials to refuse to release funds to the university if a tuition freeze is not adopted.)

These moves are ill-advised. The Legislature is proposing to rob governing boards of their ability to balance tuition costs and academic quality, not just in the next two years but likely for years to come. Legislators instead should be asking those boards to do a better job.

Lawmakers’ concern about higher-education costs is understandable. The rapid rise in college costs during the last decade is not sustainable. The capacity of students and their families to pay ever-increasing sums for higher education has been exhausted. Already an entire generation has been overburdened with debt, and too many financially hard-pressed students are opting to end their studies well short of their full potential. The business model that has sustained higher education for the last quarter-century appears to have reached a breaking point.

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