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Students rally for university support

ST. PAUL - They wore maroon, gold and the face of determination. University of Minnesota supporters arrived Wednesday at the Capitol carrying a common message for lawmakers: Help us help you. By pouring more money into higher education, the state...

ST. PAUL - They wore maroon, gold and the face of determination.

University of Minnesota supporters arrived Wednesday at the Capitol carrying a common message for lawmakers: Help us help you.

By pouring more money into higher education, the state's economy only stands to benefit, said members of the university's five campuses.

"There is nothing that can add to the quality of life more than education," said University of Minnesota-Crookston Chancellor Charles Casey.

Students and leaders from the Duluth, Morris, Twin Cities and Rochester campuses joined Casey's delegation in calling for university funding support and tuition relief during a rally in the Capitol rotunda. The university has asked lawmakers to spend $182.3 million on the institution over the next two years.


University supporters praised lawmakers for backing the institution through public works projects passed in both chambers this week.

Senators on Wednesday passed a bill that included more than $36 million in borrowed funds for university building projects. That included funding to expand the university's biomedical research facilities, which the House also passed in its public works bill Tuesday.

"I think they've been doing a pretty good job of paying attention" to university requests, said Duluth campus student body President Meghan Keil. "After today they'll recognize more."

Those measures could find a dead end in Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office. The Republican governor has proposed a much thinner public works package and has repeated that he'll sign off only on bonded projects deemed emergencies.

Morris campus Chancellor Jacqueline Johnson said that as a state institution executive, she understands what Pawlenty faces when budget requests conflict with limited funds.

But for her, "There's not much more important than supporting higher education.

"I would really hope he'd put education high on his list," Johnson said.

Tuition concerns


Rally-goers also sounded a positive note following a proposal Tuesday from House Democrats that could shrink tuition increases. A group of Duluth campus students said convincing legislators to reign in tuition costs was their highest priority.

"That's the big one for us," said Chris Skoglund, a junior from Cambridge.

Many lawmakers agree, said Rep. Dave Olin, who met with Crookston students after the rally. The Thief River Falls Democrat said serious steps need to be considered if college graduates are to avoid being saddled with upward of $20,000 in debt.

"The debt load is amazing that these poor kids have," Olin said.

He said incentive-based programs - perhaps one that would provide debt relief for graduates who move to rural communities - should be looked at. Other steps to lighten the tuition load may have to be considered, too.

"It may end up being that taxes is the only answer," Olin said.

Even if the university's request is fully funded, tuition will still increase at 4.5 percent over the next two years, said Matt Schmit, a Red Wing native and graduate student at the Twin Cities campus. He agreed that raising taxes to offset tuition increases might become part of the equation.

"It definitely should be a tool that's on the table," Schmit said.


Morris student body President Miracle Obeta said rising tuition fueled the trip Wednesday to his hometown of St. Paul.

"Because of tuition hikes I am now $20,000 in debt after only four years" of college, Obeta said.

Lauren Paulson, a Morris senior, urged fellow students to ask lawmakers to keep college costs down and to spread awareness of the campus.

"We need to let people know about our great little college on the prairie," Paulson said.

Casey said the outgrowths of university support can mean stronger Minnesota communities, families and workplaces.

"In northwest Minnesota, we need leaders," Casey said.

Casey and Johnson gave lawmakers above-average grades as they pass this legislative session's halfway mark.

"I sense support for higher education" at the Capitol, Johnson said after the rally.


Besides stressing measures to rein in tuition hikes, Keil said Duluth students would urge lawmakers to support the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion. She said funding for expansion of Duluth curricula - civil engineering and an honors program - also were top priorities.

Longaecker works for Forum Communication Co., which owns the Herald.

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