Some school and state officials call tuition freezes a ‘Band-Aid’ solution

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A day after University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler proposed to continue a two-year tuition freeze earlier this month, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system announced a similar extension.

Universities in states like Arizona, California, Iowa and New Hampshire have all enacted similar measures in recent years.

While proposals to freeze tuition prices at colleges nationwide are growing in popularity, criticism of the method has surfaced, saying it shouldn’t replace an effective, long-term strategy to increase college affordability.

While many Minnesota lawmakers and university officials say freezing tuition is a good step in cutting students’ costs, some emphasize that the act doesn’t address the underlying issue — the rising price of higher education.

“Certainly, keeping tuition costs affordable is extremely important,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, “but also, making sure that [the] administration is looking at their cost structures and making sure they’re operating as efficiently as possible is also important.”

University undergraduates who pay in-state tuition are included in the school’s freeze, which has kept tuition at the same price since the 2012-13 academic year.

The University plans to request $65 million from the state Legislature to cover the cost of extending the tuition freeze, and MnSCU is planning to request $72 million for its plan.

“Increasing state aid to keep tuition down is really a Band-Aid, not a solution to the cost issue,” said Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. “You can freeze tuition all you want. That doesn’t necessarily mean the costs of education are lowered.”

Duane Benson, who sits on MnSCU’s Board of Trustees, said the system’s previous tuition freeze failed to generate enough revenue, so a continued one will require more state funding.

Regent Laura Brod said she would like the regents to consider other ways the University can address the increasing expenses of attending college.

Brod stressed the importance of long-term strategies, rather than freezing tuition whenever it’s time to create the University’s next budget.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said the state and higher education institutions should work together to implement such strategies.

“I think [the University and MnSCU] should keep their costs down, and we should work together to figure out how to change how much it costs to deliver higher education,” she said, “rather than say ‘We’re going to freeze tuition, but we’re still going to increase our costs.’ I don’t agree with that.”

House Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders announced on Monday that they plan to support the tuition freezes for Minnesota students, but with some conditions.

“I think a tuition freeze is an important public policy provision right now,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, noting that increases in tuition over previous decades have been substantial.

But DFL leaders said they still plan to examine spending by the University and MnSCU with great “scrutiny” in the upcoming legislative session.

“Both systems have told us they have had rather substantial reductions in administrative costs,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. “We’re going to ask for an articulation of that — what that means exactly, where were these savings. I’d like it even broken down to the particular office and the salary.”

In September, Kaler announced plans to cut $90 million in administrative costs by 2019, and the University has successfully cut more than $15 million already.

Kaler commended the DFL members’ support in a press release Monday.

“To achieve a second biennium of this historic measure to hold the line on tuition, the state must partner with the University,” Kaler said in the release. “If we do not get sufficient funding to support this freeze, the Board of Regents is prepared to raise tuition, as needed, to fill the gap.”

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