Minnesota students whose families make less than $80,000 annually would no longer have to take on debt to cover public college tuition under a higher education spending bill passed by the Legislature.

The House passed the final higher education budget on Tuesday and the Senate signed off on it Wednesday afternoon, sending it to Gov. Tim Walz's desk. The free college tuition program included in the broader bill is now just a signature away from reality.

Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, who pushed for the program's creation, described the bill as a crucial first step in a much larger effort to try to make college more accessible, especially for people of color and working families.

"I am more than happy to work with you to make it universal," Fateh told his Senate colleagues, explaining his desire to eventually do away with the program's strict income cutoff.

Families making exactly $80,000 or more would not qualify for the new "North Star Promise" tuition program.

Sen. Robert Farnsworth, R-Hibbing, said during the floor debate that he believed lawmakers should continue working on the bill because he feared some parents who are juggling two or three jobs to make ends meet might not qualify for the free tuition program.

"It seems to me that with that arbitrary $80,000 threshold, we are punishing that person who is working two or three jobs to try and create a better life for their family," Farnsworth said.

Minnesota is poised to spend about $117 million in fiscal year 2025 to get the tuition assistance program started, according to the bill. After that, the state would spend $49.5 million annually on the program.

The new state initiative would be a last-dollar scholarship program, meaning it would cover any tuition costs that are left over after state and federal grants and institutional scholarships have been applied.

To qualify, students must be state residents, meet the family income threshold, be enrolled in at least one credit per semester, be in good academic standing and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines their state and federal grant eligibility.

They must attend a public college or university in Minnesota, or a tribal college. The program will not cover private college tuition.

The higher education spending package also includes money to freeze tuition at the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities for the next two school years, and a funding boost for the University of Minnesota, where officials are discussing the possibility of a 3.5% increase in tuition for many students.

Additionally, the higher education budget includes funding to cover tuition and fees for eligible American Indian students seeking an undergraduate degree at public colleges or universities in the state.

"There are pieces of this bill that are game-changers and remind us that when we decide to do it, we can do big things, great things. Things that will put us out on the vanguard, things that will lead our nation," said Sen. Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth.