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Politicians, SCSU students, staff, discuss tuition costs

BY MITCH LECLAIR ST. CLOUD TIMES SEPTEMBER 24, 2015

Many Minnesota students, higher education workers, lawmakers and political parties say the costs of attending colleges and universities is too high.

But the range of potential solutions can be as diverse as the course catalog at St. Cloud State University.

The institution hosted a roundtable discussion Thursday in Atwood Memorial Center. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat, organized the meeting — one of a handful at campuses in the state.

Thissen said the impetus for the roundtables is the continued problem of providing affordable higher education. A handout his office provided to attendees began by referencing the $2 billion surplus the state had this year — and the legislative majority’s decision to not use some of it to lower tuition.

In an interview earlier Thursday, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said he suspected the meeting at St. Cloud State was essentially Thissen playing political games. The chairman of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee said affordable schooling is a real problem, but it’s “not exactly as bad as people make it out to be.”

Nornes said students have options ranging from two-year public technical and community colleges to much more expensive four-year private schools. Many also have a chance to earn college credits during high school.

During the roundtable, student Britton Mikkelsen said postcollege debt has become a de facto part of the higher education experience. She and her friends joke about it in a self-deprecating way, saying they will probably still be paying off loans as their children enter college.

“Students try not to think about it,” Mikkelsen said.

Michael Uran, director of financial aid, said his office has seen positive trends of families being more proactive about costs. Making plans is vital, he said, and neither taking out loans nor working during school are necessarily negative choices, but both need to be “reasonable.”

Rich Shearer, associate director of admissions, said students don’t always make sound decisions before arriving on campus. More commonly, parents are making strong choices based on cost, he said.

Shearer said many times students approach him in August and say they recently had finally put pencil to paper and decided on St. Cloud State. That’s too late, he said, and many times savings is nonexistent.

“I don’t know if they want to look in the mirror and say I didn’t do it,” Shearer said.

Communications professor Scott Wells said he estimates 90 percent of his students have jobs, a required activity “in order to survive.” Many often choose to not buy textbooks “because they just can’t afford that,” he said.

In a phone interview after the roundtable, Phil Fuehrer, director of the Independence Party of Minnesota, said innovation can help reduce book costs. He cited open education resources such as the University of Minnesota-hosted Open Textbook Library that offer free PDF books and would save students thousands of dollars.

In an on-campus interview after the meeting, Thissen said schools shouldn’t be forcing students to buy new textbooks every year. During the chat, Mikkelson said many professors “make sure you buy the book,” regardless of whether an online version is available.

Attendees Thursday also cited the complexity of navigating financial aid programs.

Uran said some provisions of the state grant program are “very difficult to explain to families,” and some may be ineffective. For example, students receive more money if they take on a higher credit load, but to the best of his knowledge, that has not changed credit-taking behavior.

Tara Winchester, who also works in the financial aid office, said the neediest students are often not in a major predicament. The students in the lowest-income situations qualify for federal Pell and state grants. She said those whose families’ incomes and assets disqualify them from the grants — and who haven’t saved for school — can face loans of up to or more than $16,000 per year.

From a student services perspective, she said many students aren’t engaged in their current and future financial situations. Her office conducts campaigns, hold workshops and offers “all sorts of different types of resources, and no one comes,” except for the rare, highly motivated students.

Over the phone, Fuehrer said student debt is becoming a large problem, but some popular proposals such as pinning student loan interest rates to Federal Reserve lending rates and loan forgiveness programs might not be the best options.

He suggested students consider community colleges for their first two years and explore credit-earning opportunities during high school. He also suggested expanding MnSCU’s Programs of Study, which are aligned curriculum that begin in high school and continue along higher education paths.

During the roundtable, higher education administration professor Michael Mills said students’ movements among different institutions is becoming quite complicated. Many take courses from multiple institutions at once, he said.

It’s created a term, “swirling,” that Mills said often results in many students eventually focusing on a four-year school. One disadvantage, he said, is students miss out on some services, such as academic advice.

The Times tried to contact the Constitution, Green and Libertarian parties in Minnesota but could not connect before publishing this article.

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