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Golden deal for Wisconsinites in limbo

ST. PAUL -- University of Minnesota leaders are looking to the Legislature for help fixing a tuition situation they say is unfair after talks Friday with Wisconsin officials failed to placate them.

ST. PAUL -- University of Minnesota leaders are looking to the Legislature for help fixing a tuition situation they say is unfair after talks Friday with Wisconsin officials failed to placate them.

Higher education offices in both states could not resolve the demands of the University of Minnesota during a conference call. Officials from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education again carried the message that the university seeks to renegotiate the tuition reciprocity arrangement.

Higher education office spokeswoman Barb Schlaefer said officials from the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board are taking a hard-line approach.

"They're not interested in having their students pay more," she said.

For now, University of Minnesota students at the Twin Cities, Duluth and Morris campuses share classrooms with Wisconsinites who pay significantly less than they do -- by as much as $2,700 per year. Wisconsin and Minnesota students pay the same tuition at the Crookston campus.

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Minnesota students attending University of Wisconsin at Madison pay $7,588 through the agreement, while Wisconsin students pay $6,397 to attend the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. If reciprocity didn't exist, a Wisconsin student would pay $19,218 in tuition at the Twin Cities campus and Minnesotans would pay $20,000 at Madison.

The reciprocity agreement allows students from the two states to pay tuition at an out-of-state university at a price comparable to a corresponding institution in their home state.

It's an approach that has been in effect since 1983, but could be in jeopardy if the two states fail to reach a deal.

Schlaefer said the university may pull out of the deal with Wisconsin if its demands aren't met.

Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, is considering legislative action that would continue drawing the two sides to the bargaining table.

"It's an issue of fairness," Prettner Solon said.

Her bill calls for a reciprocity system that requires Wisconsin students to pay at least what Minnesotans do. But, Prettner Solon said, it's likely the bill will undergo significant changes.

Reps. Tom Huntley, Mary Murphy and Mike Jaros - all Duluth-area DFLers - are sponsoring the bill in the House.

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But if talks dry up, Prettner Solon said she will amend the bill to give the university something of a fiscal respite in lieu of a new deal.

It was assumed when the arrangement was devised that one state's students would end up paying less than the other.

To balance that system, a clause was added that forces the state whose students pay the least to reimburse the other state for the difference.

For the past few years, Minnesota's been on the receiving end of the payment from Wisconsin.

But those funds don't go to the University of Minnesota. Instead, the money -- about $7.8 million for the 2005-06 academic year -- goes into the state's general fund.

Are university officials feeling burned?

"Absolutely," Prettner Solon said.

The legislative measure, she said, would move those funds from the state's coffers into the university's.

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The goal, a university spokesman said, is to work toward a system Minnesota enjoys with North Dakota and South Dakota, where their students pay at least what Minnesotans do.

But that's not something Wisconsin appears to be loosening its grip on.

As Minnesota tuition has pulled ahead of its easterly neighbor's at a faster clip, terms of the two states' reciprocity agreement mean in-state increases are felt only by Minnesotan students.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system doesn't experience nearly the same disparity, Schlaefer added. At least "not in the zone where it causes concern," she said.

The result has led to an unbalanced system for the University of Minnesota, said its leaders and legislators.

"We want to make it a more equitable deal for Minnesota students," said Dan Wolter, director of the university's news service.

But state boundaries can distort lines of equity, a Wisconsin higher education official said.

"Fairness is kind of relative depending on what side of the Mississippi you're on," said Connie Hutchison, executive secretary for the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board.

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In 1985, Minnesotans attending school in Wisconsin outnumbered Badger state residents coming to Minnesota by nearly 2-to-1. But according to Minnesota Office of Higher Education data, that ratio has been steadily slipping over the past 20 years.

By 2005, Wisconsinites trimmed the margin to an almost 1-to-1 ratio, according to the data.

Hutchison wouldn't say why her board has been reticent to restructure the deal, but noted that the current arrangement was something Minnesota officials have agreed to.

The hubbub isn't going unnoticed at Minnesota campuses, some students said.

Clint Been, a Wisconsin native attending the Twin Cities campus, said tuition costs played a role before he enrolled in college. If the university wasn't as reasonably priced for a Wisconsinite, Been said he would have taken his money elsewhere.

"I probably wouldn't have come," the 20-year-old senior from Prairie du Sac, Wis., said, adding that he considered attending the University of Wisconsin's Madison and La Crosse campuses.

Legislators and university leaders don't want to turn the system into a price war for students, Prettner Solon said.

"We really do" want to preserve the reciprocity agreement, she said. "But it shouldn't be at a greater disadvantage than our own students receive."

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Mike Longaecker works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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