It’s that time when universities get on their knees and beg the state for continuing support (hey, isn’t that all the time?), and my colleague Pete Wyckoff gave some testimony at the Minnesota capitol the other day. It’s good stuff that summarizes the financial dilemma students are facing everywhere as tuition climbs and the government cuts back.
Testimony for the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, 1/31/07
My name is Pete Wyckoff and I am an associate professor of biology.
I represent the University of Minnesota, Morris, a special campus that seeks to replicate the education offered by our best private colleges, but at public school prices. Between 1/3 and ½ of the students attending Morris are first generation college students. We have the highest minority student enrollment of any U of M campus, mostly owing to a tuition waiver offered to qualified Native American students.
At the University of Minnesota, Morris, we provide a great undergraduate education. Classes are small, and every class is taught by a professor we don’t have teaching assistants. My primary job is to teach undergraduates, and I love it. I know my students by name. I know their stories. I give them heck if they slack off. If you listen to public radio, I’m sure you have heard our sponsored clip bragging that Morris is one of the top five public liberal arts schools in the nation. The bragging is warranted.
Fewer than half of our students come from the Twin Cities. The bulk of our students come from out state Minnesota, with a fraction from other states and countries. Eight percent of our students grew up on farms.
The students we serve at the University of Minnesota, Morris have great financial need. As a measure of that need, over a quarter of our students receive federal Pell grants, the highest of the four campuses, and far higher than our typical Minnesota private college peer. Pell money doesn’t go as far is it used to, however: 10 years ago a Pell grant covered 69% of University of Minnesota, Morris tuition. Today it covers 49%.
Over the past five years, tuition at the University of Minnesota rose 57%. This rise was not set by our campus, but was a system-wide decision. Comprehensive costs (tuition, room and board, and fees) for attending the University of Minnesota, Morris rose 53% over the same period and currently stand at $16,848 per year.
How have students dealt with rising cost? They have accumulated debt.
Our students at U of M Morris accumulate debt at a greater pace than at the U of M Twin Cities, but graduate with lower average indebtedness because we tend to get them done in 4 years. 2006 graduates left Morris with an average of $22,000 in debts, and ¾ of the students had debt. That last number is higher than the other U of M campuses because our students come from lower income families. Another way to look at the same numbers: for our students who take on debt, the average debt accumulation is almost $30,000.
Over the past five years, the amounts of Federal and State loans available to and taken by the typical University of Minnesota, Morris student haven’t really changed. What have changed are private loans. For the 2001-2002 school year, the fifteen hundred plus Morris students taking loans took out a cumulative grand total of $35,000 in private loans. For the 2005-2006 school year, the fifteen hundred plus Morris students taking loans took out a grand total of $2.4 million in private loans.
Besides taking loans, our students are working more off campus. On campus jobs are harder to come by, mostly because of a drop in state work study money. From discussions with students and colleagues, I can tell you that many of our students are forced to work so many hours that their grades and progress suffer.
Despite our tuition increases, money is tight at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Since I arrived at the Morris 6 years ago, my biology classes have been getting bigger, but my course and lab budgets have been getting smaller. I make do, but at some point the quality of my classes will start to decline.
Why is money tight? One big driver is the cost of health care. Another is the decline in the percentage of our costs covered by state aid. We are not living extravagantly at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and I don’t feel that we waste either the taxpayer’s money or our student’s money. Costs go up. The price goes up. Money gets tight.
As much as I worry about the debt incurred by the students who attend Morris, I am more worried about the students who don’t even show up. As I mentioned, we serve a lot of first generation college students, and for many in that group, the sticker price keeps them from even applying. We don’t even get a chance to try to make it work for them.
I teach two weeks each summer in a program for high school students. Two summers ago my best student came from out state Minnesota, the daughter of two non-college educated parents. She really wanted to come to Morris and complete our pre-medical curriculum, but the sticker price made her parents push her away from Morris. Now she is at a MNSCU school that is, I’m sure, great on many levels, but which is not a place that can get her to medical school. At the University of Minnesota, Morris, however, we can and do put out state and non-wealthy Minnesota students into medical school. Three of four Morris students with better than a B average who apply to medical school get in. Those numbers compare well with the top Minnesota private colleges, and the privates cost thousands more than Morris.
I don’t feel that Minnesota can afford to let the price of its University slip out of reach for talented students of modest means. I thank you for your time and would be glad to answer any questions.