ST. PAUL -- Minnesota college leaders say tuition hikes would be a last -- but possibly unavoidable -- option for coping with anticipated state budget cuts.
Top officials, including University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks are pleading with state lawmakers to make shallower cuts than Governor Tim Pawlenty has proposed.
Pawlenty's plan for closing a nearly $1 billion budget gap slices state aid to public colleges by about $54 million.
Bruininks says the university fully expects to face some aid reductions. But he says it will be tough to absorb a $27 million cut without laying off workers, stifling new investment in research and technology or raising tuition.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities executive Laura King also told a House panel that tuition increases would be a last resort, but could not be ruled out.
Meanwhile, A new state report says the net cost of a public college education in Minnesota is nearly twice the national average.
While the state offers grant programs and other financial aid, charges have more than doubled in a decade at the University of Minnesota and in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
And tuition payers shouldn't expect relief any time soon, with colleges and universities likely to be pinched by the state's budget shortfall that's projected at more than $900 million.
The Office of Higher Education found that:
-- Net tuition and fees, an amount minus state grants and other aid, for first-year, full-time students in 2005-06 were $4,720 at Minnesota's public universities -- about twice the national average and slightly higher than its Big Ten peer states. Minnesota's two-year schools showed similar patterns.
-- Two-thirds of seniors graduating from the state's public universities had student loan debt in 2006, and that debt averaged $21,000 -- both numbers higher than average of the Big Ten states.
-- Minnesota has high numbers of citizens enrolled in college, but the data showed big gaps by race in graduation rates. White students are more likely than students of color to complete a degree.
State officials told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that part of the reason Minnesota's average is so high compared with the nation is that big states like California more heavily subsidize higher education costs.
School officials said they have been successful in the recent past in controlling tuition growth.
University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks has made fundraising for student scholarships a priority, and a tuition program for low-income students is expected to provide $22 million in annual benefits to about 4,700 students next year.
Kara Brockett, chairwoman of the Minnesota State University Student Association, said students have benefited the last two years from "significant strides" controlling tuition. But she said students are fearful of the effects of cuts forced by the state's budget situation.
"Financial aid only goes so far when tuition is rising faster," Brockett said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)