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Moral questions hover over U of M’s tuition freeze

Taking a wider view, there are more options than having some groups pay more so that others can pay less.

In a recent contribution to MinnPost, Robert McMaster, a vice provost at the University of Minnesota, marshaled an impressive body of facts to support his contention that the state-funded tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota is a good thing. He noted that “it’s critical to look at the whole picture when judging success.” It is this admonition that I am now going to take up.

One contention that he wanted to refute is the claim that, as a result of the freeze for resident students and the increase in out-of-state tuition, the U of M was replacing Minnesotans with more lucrative out-of-state students in an attempt to increase its revenues. In support of his contention, he cites the increase in the number of Minnesota freshmen admitted this year. But looking at the broader picture, as he suggests, we should include transfer students, and indeed the whole undergraduate student body attending the U this spring. According to figures from the U’s Office of Institutional Research, there are 29,546 Minnesota undergraduates enrolled on all campuses this spring — this is 398 fewer than were enrolled in spring of 2013. For undergraduates paying out-of-state tuition the current number is 6,583 — 431 more than last year.

He is certainly correct in his assertion that some students have benefited from this freeze, but, again, we should look at the wider picture, including its impact on all members of our community. The taxpayers of this state provided funds to the U to replace the lost income due to the freeze. But the U wanted more, so fees were increased for graduate students, out-of-state students, students living in dorms, and Carlson School undergraduates — all in excess of the rate of inflation. It is a moral question whether this new distribution of costs is preferable.

A sustainable model?

Taking a wider view, there are more options than having some groups pay more so that others can pay less. The U increased its operating expenditures from $1.8 billion in 2000 to $3.4 billion today. A viable alternative to some paying more would be that everyone pays less, and that the U reduce its spending.

We should also not limit our outlook to the short term, but ask what will happen next year and in the years after that. The U has yet again increased its cost basis.  Will the U go to the Legislature during the next budget cycle and ask for an even larger increase? Will other groups of students be asked yet again to pick up the slack? Is this a sustainable model?

If we want to see “the whole picture” we cannot limit ourselves to what is happening in Minnesota. The U’s vice provost does offer some comparisons of the U with other universities across the United States. He notes, for example, that the U’s dorm rates and out-state tuition stack up well. No doubt there are a number of aspects of the U that are better than some and no worse than many. But this brings to mind the anxious swimmer pacing the shoreline who hears a voice coming from the waves saying, “Do come in — I assure you, I am the gentlest of sharks.”

Time to look inward

Nationwide student loan debt is now more than $1 trillion. Seven million student loan borrowers are currently in default. From 2004 to 2012, the average amount borrowed per student increased 70 percent. Given the flat growth in earnings of workers, it is reasonable to expect the default rate to rise. The economic impact of the growing student loan crisis is difficult to predict. It is clear that millions of college graduates will never be able to afford their own homes, start a business or have a family, and that many other economic opportunities that were common in the past will be out of reach.

Again, we must extend our vision and look beyond the economic effects and try to gauge the moral impact this will have on these individuals. With many life choices blocked off, and the constant threat of insolvency, they will likely be so risk averse that their worlds will be greatly diminished. Perhaps the current popularity of zombies is a presentiment of the future moral state of today’s college grads.

I started off by extolling the value of taking the broad view. But I am now going to recommend the opposite. Certainly there are vast impersonal forces driving events. Large institutions like the U have their own inertia, and the individuals involved with it are slotted into certain roles: defender, victim, enabler, silent bystander — but we are each of us individuals who must personally face the moral imperative of “doing the right thing.”  So now I am recommending that we look inward.

Robert Katz is an employee of the University of Minnesota libraries.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 04/24/2014 - 10:30 am.

    Big mistake

    Capitalization of education (along with healthcare) has been a huge mistake for the nations citizens, a boon for profit seeking interests. The infiltration of sport onto campuses is another huge mistake, displacing a focus on education and hamstringing budgets that would be fine without sport on campus. Additionally, things like Phoenix “university” swallow up taxpayer funded grants and loans and provide a spurious product in return. No, capitalization has lowered the standards even as it’s raised profit along very narrow lines. By looking at the state of education and health, anyone with an ounce of observational capacity can see the degradation. A freeze on tuition is a worthless band-aid. A complete reworking of priorities is in order, but is unlikely to occur.

  2. Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/25/2014 - 08:14 am.

    Jumble

    This article is a jumble of somewhat related but ultimately different topics and it’s not clear exactly what the final point is. So is it in general moral to charge some more for something then others? Interesting question to ask in Minnesota home of a progressive tax structure where 10% of the population contributes more than half all the income tax collected. Since the U gets funding from the state, and the state gets funding from the citizens, it’s not unreasonable that citizens should see some reflection of this support in their tutiion. Secondly, does the U now selectively recruit more out of state students to get this tuition windfall? As the author notes the U spending has grown to $3.4B. The differential tuition payments resulting from a few hundred less MN residents and a few more out of state students is a rounding error on that kind of budget, assuming a “zero sum” approach to U attendance. Lastly does college cost too much, do students take on too much debt? This is an entirely different topic and unrelated to the tuition freeze and approach to differential payments. With the increased focus on the topic recently and the full implications of student loan debt to young graduates starting out in their careers (impacting their housing, ability to save for retirement and other critical expenditures) this topic of affordabiltiy is an important national debate, but in the question of the tuition freeze and differential rates it’s a bit of a red herring, like bringing up potential grade inflation or the marketabiltiy of certian degrees – both important but not at the heart of the issue.

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