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U of M requests money to expand the tuition freeze

President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota said Tuesday that the school seeks $1.3 billion in state money for the next two years. (FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — Much of the higher education talk from Minnesota political leaders this year is about improving the workforce by training and retraining people in the state’s two-year colleges and technical schools, but President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota reminds legislators that his school trains workers, too.

That is one of Kaler’s sales pitches this year as he seeks money to expand a tuition freeze, fix university facilities, advance state health care and look into how to improve communities, such as by examining mining issues.

The university — with campuses in the Twin Cities, Crookston, Morris, Rochester and Duluth — puts top priority on increasing the number of students who benefit from a tuition freeze, Kaler said Tuesday. Undergraduate students’ tuitions have been frozen the last two years, but Kaler suggests expanding the freeze to graduate and medical students.

A freeze would save undergraduate students between $2,100 at Crookston to $2,600 in the Twin Cities. Newly eligible students would save varying amounts, up to $7,500 for those in veterinary medicine programs.

Without spending $65 million on the freeze, the university predicts tuition would go up 3 percent for undergraduates.

Kaler said tuitions have been on the rise for years as the state contribution to higher education costs has fallen from 70 percent in 1997 to 42 percent this year.

Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, of the House Higher Education Committee said that a tuition freeze would be the first item to get extra money, but added that “we are going to need some funding to make it all happen.”

The state’s budget has a $1 billion surplus, likely to grow because of an improving economy, but just paying inflationary costs would eat up most of the currently projected amount. And there is competition among many programs for the funds.

Besides a tuition freeze for the university system and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Nornes said that the state grant program for low-income students also must be well funded.

Kaler admitted that since there only is so much money and that his tuition freeze proposal competes with Senate Democrats’ plan to give free two-year community and technical college education to Minnesota students.

The president did not appear overly worried about the Senate plan: “This is the first inning of a long ball game.”

However, Kaler pointed out that his university system graduates 15,000 students who are trained for jobs each year.

In addition to a tuition freeze, the university wants $35 million for health care, including opening “a half dozen” clinics in rural and other unserved areas, Kaler said. The university also would work to plug shortages of professional health care providers, especially in rural Minnesota, and strengthen research about cancer, heart disease, stroke diabetes, obesity and arthritis.

Another place the university would spend money is to improve water quality from mine discharges and help northern Minnesota mines get metals and other valuable materials from what had been considered waste.

Kaler said the university’s budget plan includes an unspecified amount of extra funds for the Duluth campus, which has experienced an enrollment drop.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.