Qualifying Minnesota high school seniors would be automatically accepted into some local colleges and universities through a new admissions program Gov. Tim Walz wants to create as part of his budget plan.

Walz is also recommending the state invest $35 million in a new college grant program targeted to workers who were affected by the pandemic.

The proposals headline $150 million in new higher education spending included in Walz's two-year budget plan, which was unveiled last week. The Minnesota State college system would receive a $63.5 million boost to its state appropriation under Walz's budget proposal, while the University of Minnesota would get a $46.5 million increase.

"Investing in Minnesotans is a smart thing to do," said state Rep. Connie Bernardy, a Democrat from New Brighton who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. "It really places a priority in helping students weather this pandemic and be able to reach their educational goals and their dreams."

The state's K-12 schools and higher education institutions would receive $1 million over the next two years to create a proactive college admissions process for high school seniors. All seniors who meet agreed-upon academic benchmarks would receive letters showing they have been accepted into a set of institutions in the Minnesota State system. Students would also receive a free application to claim their spot at the college they choose.

The initiative, dubbed "Direct Admissions Minnesota," would be piloted with 10 K-12 schools. It's meant to increase access for students, particularly students of color, by simplifying the admissions process and putting them on the path to a college education.

"I've worked with students in the past who were super bright … but just didn't think about college as a possibility," said Tanis Henderson, a school counselor at Deer River High School and president of the Minnesota School Counselor Association. "This policy would put that dream in reach for students, especially some students of color who just maybe need one more person to tell them that college is possible."

Walz also wants to make college more accessible for those who have been economically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. His proposed "workforce stabilization grant program" would give college financial aid to two groups: critical industry workers whose jobs have been disrupted by the pandemic and low-income college students whose education has been negatively affected.

Those applying for the grants must be Minnesota residents who have a high school diploma and a family income of $80,000 or less. And they must enroll in degree programs that lead to jobs in "high-need" occupations.

About 20,000 students would benefit from the program with the average grant totaling $800, according to the Walz administration.

"People might need retraining," said state Sen. David Tomassoni, I-Chisholm, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "In that case, we would want to be a part of the solution just to get people back to work."

Walz's budget plan also includes $1.3 million in emergency assistance grants for college students who are experiencing financial hardship, among other proposals.

In statements last week, leaders of the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems said the governor's proposed funding levels would help stabilize their finances and serve their students as they recover from the pandemic.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234