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U of M budget initiative aims to tackle student debt

ST. PAUL — Students and faculty at the University of Minnesota say an inadequate number of advisors can add spendy years of school past the typical four years.

More time spent in school can mean padding a recent graduate's debt by thousands of dollars.

A new project in the university's two-year budget proposal aims to funnel a portion of the $147 million of additional spending into hurrying students' graduation and minimize student debt.

The project would use $22 million allocated over two years to create a student success center with more advisors, as well as advancing the university's science, technology, engineering and math education and early outreach to high-achieving students of color.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler (Pioneer Press photo by Jean Pieri)"If you really want to run up your student debt, what you'll do is come back for year five or six," university President Eric Kaler told reporters while discussing the budget Tuesday, Jan. 10. "Being able to get all students focused on a four-year or less graduation rate is really important."

Efforts to improve retention and provide students with proper advising ranks among the Minnesota Student Association's top funding priorities.

William Dammann, government and legislative affairs director with the student group, said the funding would help the university achieve a "gold standard" student-to-advisor ratio, which would expedite graduation.

"Students may find out they won't be able to graduate on time because of something they did or didn't do early on," he said. "We're focused on getting students out into the workforce as soon as they can."

Those at the University of Minnesota Duluth, one of four U of M campuses outside the Twin Cities, are concerned.

UMD sustained $2 million in program cuts and a several faculty reduction in the fall.

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The cuts came at a time when infrastructure issues throughout the campus limit the use of facilities like the Chemical and Advance Material Science building, where aging framework prevents chemistry students from safely using bunsen burners in some classrooms. The building is on top of the university system's construction list.

Rudy Perrault, UMD professor and president of the University Educators Alliance at the school, said the administration's decision to cut "right to the bone" of UMD operations means some required classes will be offered on a limited schedule.

"Some of students won't be able to get in those classes because they waited too long because of the queue," he said. "That puts them at a deficit because they have to wait another semester or another extra year if it's offered once a year. That's a little troubling."

While trimming costly extra semesters off students' time in college may results in a lighter debt burden, the prospect of tuition hikes remains a possibility.

Maggie Mills, a member of the U of M Crookston Student Association, said the primary financial concern for the northwestern Minnesota campus is keeping costs down.

"From my perspective, it really just comes down to having the state make our tuition as low as possible," she said. "Obviously there's scholarships and that all kind of correlates together, but right now I would say that we're in good financial standing."

Michael Purtell, vice president of external affairs with the student association at UMD, said the group will push for a tuition freeze.

"Our tuition is already over $13,000, and it's tripled over 20 years," he said. "In the early '90s, my parents paid less than a third of the tuition I pay."

Kaler was unsure of the likelihood of a tuition freeze, but the budget he proposed include $68 million to support core missions and minimize tuition increases.

"It is an economic issue, and we will work across the system to minimize any tuition increases," he said. "That's the conversation I'm eager to have with legislators. Let's invest in our school, invest in our future and not have to ask for more resources from students or their parents."

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