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‘U’ reps push tuition freeze at Capitol

The University of Minnesota, Morris mascot, Pounce, stands among students and officials during a rally at the state Capitol on "Support the U Day" Thursday, Feb. 7. 2013. (Danielle Killey/Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL – University of Minnesota students and officials pushed state lawmakers Thursday to fund a plan to freeze undergraduates’ tuition.

The tuition hold, which comes at a cost of $42.6 million over the next two years, is one piece of the university’s nearly $1.2 billion request from the state.

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities student Ryan Olson, a Moorhead native, said tuition cost is a key issue for students.

“We want to make it more affordable for the future students who go to the U of M,” Olson said. “It’s our responsibility as current students.”

The 18-year-old economics major said part of the reason he chose the university was that it was less expensive than other similar schools, but tuition is becoming a burden in general.

“I am lucky my family can afford it,” Olson said. “Not everyone has that opportunity.”

He was one of more than 400 students from across the university’s campuses that signed up to make the trip to the state Capitol for “Support the U Day,” where University of Minnesota representatives rallied, met with legislators and promoted the organization’s funding request from the state.

The freeze on undergraduate tuition is estimated to save each incoming freshman $2,500 at the Twin Cities, Morris, Duluth and Rochester campuses and $2,100 in Crookston over four years.

University President Eric Kaler emphasized other parts of his plan Thursday that would save students money as well, such as forgiving loans for healthcare professionals including pharmacists, doctors and veterinarians who agree to work in underserved areas of Minnesota. That would cost about $1.5 million starting in 2015.

Gov. Mark Dayton emphasized the need to invest in education during his State of the State speech Wednesday night. His budget proposal includes $80 million of the university’s $91.6 million increase request over two years.

“I like our chances,” Kaler said. “I think we have elected officials willing to support us.”

University of Minnesota-Duluth senior Kelly Kemper said higher education funding is critical at a time when a bachelor’s degree is needed for many entry-level jobs.

“We have to focus on making college affordable to everyone,” said Kemper, a 22-year-old from Wisconsin studying communications.

Kemper said she hopes the rally and meetings will send a message, but “it needs to be more than one day.”

Sen. Terri Bonoff, chairwoman of the Senate higher education committee, said she supports the emphasis on putting more money toward higher education, including the University of Minnesota.

“I’m going to do my very best … to provide as much funding as possible,” the Minnetonka Democrat told those gathered at the Capitol.

Bonoff said capping tuition “is a very important first step” toward making college more accessible and affordable.

The school is asking lawmakers for money to start new programs as well.

Its budget request includes $36 million to create Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE), which would focus on four key areas:  advancing industry and conserving the environment, treating brain conditions, stabilizing the global food supply and supporting robotics work.

The university also has outlined $173 million in requests for a state public works funding bill for building repairs and rehabilitation, though this year is one typically focused on setting the state budget instead of bonding.

During the event, UMM students also met with Rep. Jay McNamar.

“The Morris campus of the U of M is a huge asset for West Central Minnesota,” said McNamar. “Having the opportunity to meet with students in person is a great way to be reminded of all the good work they do there.”

Among the students visiting with McNamar was Joey Daniewicz, the Chief Assistant with UMM’s campus newspaper.

"I stayed up all night to make sure I would make it on the the bus leaving early this morning. And now we’re heading right back,” said Daniewicz. “All for the chance to lobby for the ‘U’ for 3 hours.”

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