President Kaler's testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thank you, Senator Franken.   

I thank you for all Minnesotans—including those good looking and above average ones from Lake Woebegone—for your service and your regular visits with students on our campus.

Good morning, Chairman Harkin, Senator Alexander, and members of the committee. 

I come before you today to share how the University of Minnesota is addressing the most critical issues in higher education today: 

  • First, ensuring access and affordability; 
  • Second, forging strong partnerships to achieve student success; 
  • And third, establishing programmatic innovations to ensure students—particularly low-income students—get their degrees in a timely fashion. 

I also come here to urge you to fully support our students and our state through the reauthorization of Higher Education Act legislation. 

Thank you for this opportunity.

The value of a public college degree for our students and our states—for the entire nation’s competitiveness, really—has never been higher. The cost, too, of higher education has never been higher.

As states have reduced their support, families and students have borne the brunt of tuition increases. The burdens of student debt have become central to a national conversation about the costs of going to college. 

But our experience at Minnesota provides some perspective on the national narrative about debt, which tends to focus on the “outliers,” that small number of students with $75,000 or $100,000 in undergraduate debt. 

In a perverse definition of average, most analyses only include those with debt, ignoring that—at the University of Minnesota—37 percent of our students graduate with no debt at all. 

Yes, with zero debt.

Still, this trend of increased higher education costs for families—especially middle class families—cannot continue.

Since becoming president at Minnesota in 2011, I have put accessibility and affordability at the top of my agenda. My first budget included the lowest tuition increase in more than a decade, and for the past two years we achieved an historic tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergraduates.

This was a significant achievement, especially given state disinvestment, which, over the past decade, was among the steepest nationally. 

Since then, the state and the University have developed a partnership of shared accountability. 

First, the University pledged to tackle administrative costs. We pledged to redirect $90 million over a six-year period from administrative activities to our missions, and we’re ahead of schedule. The University also agreed to accountability targets. 

We also invested in financial aid to assist students and families. We award our students nearly $340 million of financial aid annually. 

Counting all students—those with debt and those without—the average per capita burden on our students when they graduate is about $16,500. That, to me, is a good investment, particularly when you consider the lifetime earnings of college graduates. 

Our commitment to student support includes a series of innovative programs designed specifically to support low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students. I outline them in my written testimony, and I am proud of our work in this area.

But applying for financial aid should be easier. Students and their families are burdened by a confusing collection of forms and websites in the process of seeking financial aid. I urge you to help simplify the financial aid process.

So, in closing, I offer these thoughts as you consider reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.  

I encourage you to create incentives to stop the decline of state investment, promote affordability and access, support partnerships, and fuel innovative programs like ours at Minnesota. I urge you ensure federal financial aid funding is targeted to institutions with high retention and graduation rates.

Finally, I urge you to look at the regulatory burdens imposed on us by the federal government, not only related to financial aid, but also throughout our research enterprise. 

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, we’re all in this together … to ensure higher education’s accessibility and the success of the next generation of our nation’s leaders. 

Thank you again, Chairman Harkin, for your focus on affordability and our students.