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Tuition Agreement Opens More Opportunities

July 05, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota needs more affordable higher educational options, not fewer. With the renewed Minnesota-Wisconsin tuition reciprocity deal, our state has retained a valuable learning opportunity for students and families. But, it almost didn't happen.

The tuition reciprocity agreement provides Minnesota and Wisconsin students with access to two of the finest university education systems in the nation. For more than 40 years, students have been able to attend colleges in both states and pay their home state tuition rather than the much more expensive out-of-state tuition rate.

The program is immensely popular. In 1985, the number of Minnesotans at Wisconsin schools was 8,659 and the number of Wisconsin students in Minnesota was 4,579. Twenty years later, those numbers rocketed to 13,595 from Minnesota and 11,418 from Wisconsin.

Students and legislators saw several problems with the previous agreement. Dissent nearly derailed the entire deal.

Because undergraduate tuition at Minnesota universities is higher than tuition at the Wisconsin universities, Wisconsin residents pay $1,500 to $2,200 less to attend University of Minnesota campuses than Minnesota residents pay to attend Wisconsin schools. Under the new pact, all students will be charged the higher of the two resident tuition rates. In the case of Wisconsin students, Wisconsin will provide a "tuition reciprocity supplement" to students to cover the increase in tuition charges.

In the past, Wisconsin's reimbursement for its students -- $7.5 million last year - wasn't given to each student but to Minnesota's general fund. University officials said that policy created a $7.5 million loss for the university system each year. To fix the problem, Minnesota lawmakers will send a portion of the money to the University of Minnesota schools and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

The plan must first gain approval from higher education officials in both states, but officials see no obstacles to keeping the program alive.

The agreement will not affect current students or students admitted for fall 2007. Wisconsin residents enrolling in Minnesota in 2008 will see an increase in tuition charges but will also get the tuition reciprocity supplement, which will cover the tuition increase.

The reciprocity agreement has been in effect since 1968 and is negotiated each year by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the Wisconsin Higher Education Aids Board.

Expanding access to affordable education shouldn't hinge on renewing a wildly successful, popular 40 year old program, however much the reimbursement structure needed fixing. Preserving the Minnesota-Wisconsin tuition reciprocity deal should be the first step in a higher ed access plan, not simply the preservation of the status quo.

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