College students protest tuition costs at Minnesota Capitol
ST. PAUL -- College students rallied in front of the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday to chants of "one, two, three four, stomp tuition to the floor" and "we ain't going to take it," asking legislators to keep tuition in check.
"Past budget deficits have hit higher education hard," said Travis Johnson, who represents 100,000 two-year school students in the Minnesota State College Student Association
The Lake Superior College in Duluth student said Minnesota two-year college tuitions are the third highest in the country.
Andrew Spaeth, a Bemidji State University student and representative of four-year Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system students, said that "students have borne their fair share."
Hundreds of MnSCU students rallied on the Capitol steps. They told legislators to limit increases and some later testified on behalf of a bill by Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, to freeze tuitions. Spaeth and Johnson said they would not demand a total freeze, just a limit on increases.
Many of the rallying students wore red stocking caps labeled "tuition," a reference to the tuition cap they seek.
Carlson briefly donned one of the caps, and told students: "We have to stop balancing the budget on the backs of students."
In an interview, Carlson said that he would accept attempts to change his bill from a total freeze to a limit on how much tuitions may rise.
The senator called for cuts in MnSCU and University of Minnesota administration to save money.
While Republicans often say colleges should become more efficient, Spaeth said they already are doing that. As proof, he said MnSCU schools serve 40,000 more students now than in 2001, but operate with about the same state funding as then.
Although a committee heard his bill Wednesday, a freeze or cap proposal will not be decided until lawmakers adopt a higher education budget later in the spring.
Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal, released Tuesday, would cut higher education spending $171 million, leaving about $2.7 billion for the next two years. Republicans who control the Legislature have yet to announce their budget plan.
Despite the cut, Spaeth and Johnson said Dayton did the best he could. That was the same as University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks said.
"The governor's proposed funding level for the university means we will be able to hold any tuition increase for Minnesota students for the upcoming academic year at a very modest amount necessary to cover inflation," Bruininks said.
The cuts mean university employees' pay will be frozen for a year. He warned that if more cuts are needed, they "will have a dramatic impact on the university's ability to provide an affordable, quality education, avoid deep, unplanned job losses, and continue to fulfill its unique role to the citizens of Minnesota."
In arguing that tuition increases must stop, Spaeth said that in 1980 the state paid 80 percent of college costs while now student tuition funds 56 percent.
Spaeth, who is from Montevideo, said his youngest brother (one of nine kids in the family) may not be able to attend college if tuitions keep increasing like the doubling of the past decade.
Johnson, a Hibbing resident, said colleges are especially important in a time of tough economic because they can lift Minnesotans into a better position.
For the first time, student debt now exceeds credit card debt, Johnson added.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.