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Kaler pitches plan to freeze tuition, increase research grants during visit for Jazz Fest

MORRIS – If the University of Minnesota's budget request is granted in full, the university will freeze tuition for undergraduate students for two years on a total allocation equal to the university's funding level in 2001, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said during a visit to the University of Minnesota, Morris last week.

While at UMM for Jazz Fest, Kaler spoke about the state of the university and the university's legislative request.

Across the country, financial support for universities has dropped about 22 percent, shifting the cost of higher education away from states and on to students, Kaler said.

Over that same period, funding in Minnesota has decreased 48 percent, putting state spending at a lower level per capita than in Mississippi. And Minnesota is 32 in the nation when it comes to dollars pre $1,000 of personal income spent on higher education, he continued.

“That's not a sustainable path. I don't think it's a path the state wants to go and follow. It's not a path the governor is interested in following,” said Kaler.

The university's budget request has three major parts: a request for $42.6 million million to freeze undergraduate tuition for Minnesota residents for two years, funding for a research program called MnDRIVE (Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), and loan forgiveness through a program that relieves 15 percent of student debt for three years if they practice healthcare in underserved areas.

MnDRIVE is an initiative that would focus resources on four key areas – food, water, robotics and “neuromodulation” – to situate the university as a leader in these industries.

Work on sustainability at UMM would intersect both the food and water research areas, Kaler said.

Kaler said he often refers to Minnesota as the “Silicon Valley” of the food industry thanks to the presence of three Fortune 500 food companies – Cargill, General Mills and Land O'Lakes – and the impact of agriculture on the state economy.

“Figuring out how to [produce food] in an efficient, sustainable, distributed way is critical to the future of the world,” Kaler said.

The $18 million per year Kaler hopes the state will invest in the program will be used to leverage federal research grants, private philanthropy and industrial contributions that will create jobs and innovation.

Kaler said he was not sure how those outside investments make their way to UMM, since the campus doesn't have graduate researchers or fellows.

“I can imagine in those areas there being funds available for supporting competitively reviewed proposals much like we do in other areas now so that a faculty member could get an amount of money to support an undergraduate doing work related to that topic,” he said.

The proposed budget totals about $92 million over the university's base allocation. If the request is fully-funded, the university will receive the same amount in 2015 as it did in 2001, Kaler said.

“That's a measure of the magnitude of state reduction that's occurred in Minnesota, not adjusted for inflation and not accounting for the 9,000 additional students and the additional campus in Rochester that the system has,” Kaler said.

Just a few days after Kaler's stop in Morris, the House and Senate both released their budget proposals which include money to freeze tuition at public universities and colleges and allot more funds for state grants and financial aid.

Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Plymouth, said her plan “stops the trend of disinvesting and for the first time makes a substantial investment in students attending colleges and universities across Minnesota and their families.”

The Senate budget, which committee members moved forward Tuesday evening, appropriates about $1.2 billion each for the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems, while the House gives about $1.1 billion each.

The budgets require the university and MnSCU system to meet requirements including trimming administrative costs and increasing degrees conferred and graduation rates to get their full funding in the second year.

Danielle Killey of the Forum News Service contributed to this story.