Minnesota House Democrats want to use a slice of the state's $9.3 billion budget surplus to make community college free for thousands of students.

The community college grant program included in House Democrats' higher education spending bill would cover any tuition and fees remaining after traditional grants and scholarships have been applied. Minnesotans with a family income of less than $75,000 would have all their leftover costs paid for through the new state program. Students with a family income of $75,000-124,999 would have 50-95% of their costs covered, with those at the lowest end of the income range getting the most aid.

"We are trying to open doors for Minnesota students and families," said Democratic state Rep. Connie Bernardy, who chairs the House higher education committee. "We have the funding, this historic moment in time to get this off the ground."

The community college program would cost about $30 million per year.

Senate Republicans did not include the free community college grant program in their higher education bill, which proposes less funding for Minnesota's public college systems than the House version. The two parties remain far apart on their spending priorities and must hash out differences in the coming weeks.

"We just believe this was the year to do tax cuts," said Republican Sen. Jason Rarick, vice chairman of the Senate higher education committee, explaining why his party is proposing less money for higher education.

Rarick added that the House's free community college proposal is "worth looking at" as the two chambers negotiate a final bill.

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

Some 17,000 Minnesotans would benefit from the proposed community college grant program, Bernardy said, and about 10,000 of them would have their tuition and fees fully covered.

Supporters say it could help alleviate workforce shortages and boost enrollment at Minnesota's higher education institutions. Enrollment at the 30 community colleges in the Minnesota State system decreased 12% between 2019-2021 amid the pandemic.

"By making them free, that's going to help us get more people into both community college and eventually into the four-year universities," said Mike Dean, executive director of the community college student association LeadMN.

Faculty members and administrators from the Minnesota State system applauded the House proposal during a hearing earlier this week, but they also asked lawmakers to extend the grant program to cover two years' of tuition for students attending its four-year universities.

Bernardy said she wants to create the community college grant program first before considering an expansion.

Funding differences

The community college grant program accounts for about a third of the $100 million in new higher education spending that House Democrats are proposing for the coming fiscal year. The House bill also includes a $32 million funding boost for the University of Minnesota next fiscal year and a $10 million increase to the Minnesota State system's appropriation.

Senate Republicans are pitching $19 million in new funding for higher education next fiscal year, including a $2 million increase for the U and a nearly $11 million funding bump for Minnesota State.

The Senate bill would invest nearly $4 million annually to create a new state grant program for students enrolled in law enforcement degree programs, giving them $3,000 in aid per year.

"When we've gone out to our schools, they have seen an incredible decline in [law enforcement student] enrollment," Rarick said.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans did not fulfill the U's request to fund new student scholarships, nor did they give the Minnesota State system the money it sought for a tuition freeze.

J.D. Burton, the U's chief government relations officer, asked the House higher education committee Tuesday to include more funding for scholarships. A greater Minnesota scholarship program proposed by the U would have awarded $3,500 in new annual aid to state residents who enroll at the university's Duluth, Rochester, Morris and Crookston campuses, Burton said.

"This is not funding that would have gone to the administration. It was student-centered," Burton said.

Both the House and Senate bills include less higher education funding than Gov. Tim Walz proposed. Walz's supplemental budget plan includes $129 million in new spending to be spread between the U, the Minnesota State system and the state Office of Higher Education next fiscal year.

Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson, a member of Walz's cabinet, urged House lawmakers to consider more funding for Minnesota State and the U.

"We're hopeful that as we progress we can consider the additional requests made by the governor," Olson said.