Students across the state and close to home had the opportunity to meet with the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Committee as committee chair Sen. Terri Bonoff and vice-chair Sen. Greg Clausen embarked on a three week “listening tour” across the state.
Joining Bonoff and Clausen at MSUM’s town-hall style meeting last Tuesday were Sen. Kent Eken and Rep. Ben Lien, representing the Moorhead area, as well as former Sen. Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
In her opening introduction, Bonoff stressed the emphasis of this three-week tour is to hear issues that students are having with the higher education system in Minnesota and bringing those issues back to the committee to be addressed.
Clausen noted that the Minneapolis-St. Paul 11-county area is the “44th largest economy in the world, and that is because of the highly educated workforce” in the state.
“Education is really the engine that is driving our state,” Clausen said. “Students, you’re investing in it. Professors, you are guiding the way, guiding the young people, the future of our state.”
Eken said that although in the recent past there has been a disinvestment in higher education, the state turned a corner last session to change that into a re-investment in the higher education system in Minnesota through changes to student loans and grants.
The big issues
The largest, most reverberated concern of students was the climbing costs of tuition and fees over the last few years.
Kevin Struxness, a political science senior and president of Student Senate, said he hears from more and more students who are working full time and going to school full time, and even that isn’t helping to make ends meet sometimes.
“My brother is seven years older than me, and he graduated college with half the amount of debt that I have right now,” Struxness said. “I want to see more government investment in education.”
He said even with the statewide tuition freeze it’s getting harder and harder for students to finish college on time while accruing as little debt as possible.
Some suggested improvements by the visiting committee members were to increase the amount of internships and apprenticeships. Bonoff cited a program at M State where companies are sponsoring students as a way to help offset tuition costs.
Other suggestions included debt forgiveness through public service and reducing costs while in school, through online and in-classroom blended classes.
Clausen added that there were two proposals to help the debt situation, neither of which made it past the Senate Taxes Committee. The first was a proposal to refinance student loans at a lower rate through the state. The second proposed a tax credit of up to $4,000 for those who are repaying their student loans and have made their payments on time for a specified amount of time.
Alternative ways to keep costs down
Yannis Tomko, a graphic communications sophomore, suggested cuts to non-tuition based necessities like textbooks and living expenses for those students who live on campus, stating that when he lived on campus his tuition bill “more than doubled.”
Open-source textbooks were an avenue explored by the committee, Bonoff said. “The committee found that to lower costs and make a difference across the board would require a broader conversation with faculty, as textbooks are chosen by faculty, not the school.
Students who transfer within the MnSCU system expect that the hard work, time and money they invested in credits at one school will transfer with them to another school, but sometimes that is not the case.
The issue of ease of credit transferability is one Bonoff said was mentioned at almost every school the committee had visited. She said one student had taken 48 credits at a two-year institution and found that when she transferred to a four-year school, only six of her credits were accepted.
Bonoff said the committee is still in the early discovery phase of learning what can be done to create better credit transferability. The bigger issue is how to regulate all courses at all the MnSCU colleges so they are equivalent.
“We can craft legislation that will work,” Bonoff said. “But we don’t want to blindly issue a mandate that is going to have unintended consequences of limiting the freedom of academics. We have a lot of work to do in conjunction with faculty to make sure we have a solution.”
Philosophy professor Philip Mouch added that, from a professor’s standpoint, he appreciates that the potential for unintended consequences was noticed by the committee.
“The biggest fear of faculty is becoming homogenous,” Mouch said.
Though schools are banded together through the MnSCU system, they may receive their national accreditation through different systems. Mouch said those different systems have different requirements for accreditation, therefore making similarly named classes – such as English 101 – worth different credits at different universities.
Another way future college students can help lower the cost of their college career is by taking post secondary education option (PSEO) courses while in high school.
Clausen said that PSEO classes are a great way to start earning college credits and prepare for college while in high school. Now more students are eligible to take PSEO classes in high school.
“It used to be that students could only participate in PSEO if they were in the top quartile of their graduating class and had to be a junior or senior,” Clausen said. “Now, if students are ready to take college level classes in tenth grade, they can. We’ve opened up that option, so we aren’t holding students back.”
The visit ended with the committee adding an MSUM sticker to a board that has traveled with the committee to all their stops that simply reads #myMNdegree and was emblazoned with stickers from schools across the state.