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Pioneer Editorial: Carlson bill holds firm on tuition

In part to fulfill a campaign promise, Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, last week introduced a bill calling for a tuition freeze at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and University of Minnesota campuses.

More importantly, Sen. Carlson says he wants to solve the state's $6.2 billion budget problem but not by asking students at either institution to pay more.

"We need to make sure during these times that we not balance the budget on the backs of students," Sen. Carlson told the Bemidji Pioneer Editorial Board on Friday.

The bill, SF 268, would freeze tuition at current levels for two years at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses, which would include Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College.

Further, Sen. Carlson's bill calls for a permanent cap on tuition after the two years, allowing tuition at either institution to rise no more than the annual percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers, published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the immediate preceding calendar year.

The Bemidji Republican freshman expects opposition from university administrators and faculty both because of a fear of being put into a corner if the Legislature cuts funding to higher education. In the past, the institutions have had nowhere else to go but to higher tuition. Until recently, students have been faced with double-digit tuition increases to the point where Minnesota has among the nation's highest public school tuition.

But Sen. Carlson believes universities can reinvent themselves and find administrative savings without affecting core programs. "We need find out how to do that, and still flow money to the classroom," he said.

The state at one time paid about two-thirds of the cost of a student to attend public college and the student a third in tuition. Today, the state's share is in the 40-plus percentage. Sen. Carlson would like to see that exceed 50 percent, perhaps even reach 60 percent, but it won't be with a flush of new money.

"We need to redesign higher education," said Sen. Carlson, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The bill gets its first hearing Wednesday before the panel, the day when public college students will gather at the State Capitol to rally for a limitation on tuition increases.

A tuition freeze might be a hard sell for the Legislature, but lawmakers need to realize how their budget deliberations will affect higher education students. Especially now when a new workforce is needed for post-Great Recession jobs, our higher education institutions need to be affordable and accessible. And Sen. Carlson's bill will help to do just that.