A state student association is asking Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders to make college more affordable by investing $125 million to pay for a 17% tuition cut at Minnesota's community colleges.

The community college student association LeadMN argues such an investment would have a positive impact on the well-being of students and the enrollments of Minnesota's 30 community and technical colleges. The requested $125 million increase to the Minnesota State college system's two-year state funding allocation would be an ongoing commitment.

"At a time when community and technical colleges have seen major enrollment declines due to the pandemic, a tuition cut of this size could have an outsized effect on enrollment, helping to draw students back in," LeadMN President Axel Kylander wrote in a letter to Walz and lawmakers, adding that the request is reasonable given the state's projected $7.7 billion budget surplus.

Total enrollment across Minnesota's community and technical colleges fell 12% during the COVID-19 pandemic, from more than 112,000 students in fall 2019 to about 99,000 in fall 2021, according to data from the Minnesota State system.

Students attending Minnesota State's community colleges and universities were hit with back-to-back tuition increases, each of them about 3%, in the spring and fall semesters of 2021. The system has separately asked the state for $25 million this year to freeze tuition.

The average tuition at Minnesota's community and technical colleges is about $5,740 this year, ranking seventh highest in the nation, according to a report from the nonprofit College Board. After financial aid is applied, most Minnesota community college students will pay about $1,500 for the year, according to Minnesota State.

A recent LeadMN survey of about 7,700 community and technical college students found that 90% had struggled to pay for school and living expenses in the past year. The proposed 17% cut would lower community college tuition by nearly $1,000, according to LeadMN.

"What we are hearing from students anecdotally is just tuition is really expensive and that is a barrier right now, particularly with COVID," said Mike Dean, LeadMN's executive director. "We think that if we're going to address this workforce shortage that the state is facing right now, we need to make a significant investment in making college affordable."

In a statement, Minnesota House higher education committee chairwoman Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, did not directly address the LeadMN request. But she said her committee will review proposals to help students afford their education this year.

"We need to bring down costs for all students, including students at technical and community colleges. With a historic budget surplus, Minnesota has the resources to help," Bernardy said.

Walz's spokeswoman, Claire Lancaster, said the governor will look to invest in higher education and expand workforce training in the upcoming legislative session.

Republican state Sen. Jason Rarick, vice chairman of the Senate's higher education committee, said his committee is also thinking about college affordability. In recent years, though, the panel has focused on investing in new scholarships and increases to state grant awards that help students "in the greatest need of assistance," he said.

The LeadMN proposal, Rarick said, will likely be one of many considered in the Senate.

"I do believe there will be money from the surplus that we're going to look to use to help students," said Rarick, R-Pine City. He added that lawmakers will also be weighing how higher education institutions can help address the current labor shortage.