Minnesota lawmakers found $5 million to help cover college costs for former foster children, then approved it in not one — but two — bills at the chaotic end of the legislative session.

On Friday, after advocates of the plan wondered what would happen to the double legislation, Walz's office announced he had signed both bills.

"It's a good reason to celebrate," said Ziigwan Frazer, policy and advocacy manager for Foster Advocates, a nonprofit that has been working with students to lobby lawmakers. "There's a lot of joy around it and a lot of relief knowing that fosters' livelihoods will be intact for the next school year, and they're no longer threatened."

Officials with the state's Office of Higher Education warned lawmakers earlier this year that they would need the additional money to cover rising demand for the Fostering Independence Grant Program or risk placing hundreds of eligible students on a wait-list. In sometimes tearful testimony, students who rely on the grants urged lawmakers to act swiftly, saying the uncertainty was placing college plans in stressful limbo.

The grant program covers tuition and living costs for Minnesota students who spent time in the foster care system as teenagers. When lawmakers created the program three years ago, they held it up as a rare pandemic-era win that could help some of the state's most vulnerable young residents improve their lives while reducing the long-term demand for social services.

Between 12,000 and 16,500 Minnesota children experience some form of out-of-home or foster care each year. Some children were removed from their homes after officials found evidence of abuse or neglect. Others wound up there as part of agreements designed to help them get specialized treatment for disabilities or mental health concerns.

Only about half the nation's foster children graduate from high school and an even smaller portion — less than 10% — obtain college degrees, according to data from the National Foster Youth Institute.

Lawmakers initially budgeted about $4 million for the Fostering Independence Grant program, but officials with the Office of Higher Education said several factors are increasing the costs. They said rising inflation and demand for the program grew as college enrollment increased for the first time in more than a decade.

In the final days of the session, lawmakers included the additional $5 million in funding in two separate bills: a higher education bill and an omnibus tax bill that has been derided by Republicans for touching on a wide array of subjects, such as health care, transportation and gun safety.

Foster Advocates had encouraged the governor, a Democrat, to sign the higher education bill, saying it would provide additional protections for grant recipients if the omnibus bill were to face legal challenge.

Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Office of Higher Education, said leaders there anticipate the additional $5 million will be enough to cover grants for all 683 people who met initial eligibility criteria for the 2024-25 school year.

Both Republican and DFL lawmakers have described the funding as a short-term fix to get students through the next school year and said they anticipate they'll need to work next session to find a longer-term solution.

Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, who sponsored the legislation that created the program, said he was happy lawmakers were able to pass the funding "to send a message to all of our kids going through the foster program that they are a priority, and we're going to do what we can to help them get that postsecondary education."

Rarick said lawmakers have begun thinking about longer-term solutions and when they return next session, "I think we'll get a couple of different ideas."

Frazer said Friday that she still was processing the idea that work on this year's bills was finally done.

"It's been a journey and the journey isn't over, but we are hopeful and just excited for what is to come," Frazer said. "I think fosters are feeling a lot of relief and are ready for what is next, because our community is always bracing for what is next."