Seeking to offset losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota State system of public universities and community colleges will ask the Legislature for a $120 million increase to its two-year budget during the upcoming legislative session.

The request includes $75 million to help stabilize the system's 37 colleges, which have incurred unexpected expenses due to the pandemic, and another $45 million to help fund a scholarship program and support students' basic needs, among other things. The odds of the system receiving such an increase are slim as the state grapples with a potential multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

"We want to be able to maintain capacity for our colleges and universities to continue to have the breadth of academic programs and student services that our students expect on their campuses," said Bill Maki, Minnesota State's vice chancellor for finance and facilities, during a board of trustees meeting Wednesday. Board members signed off on the system's state funding request.

The requested increase is nearly three times as large as the $47 million increase the University of Minnesota is seeking to its two-year state appropriation.

Minnesota State leaders say the size of their request is necessary given the current financial outlook: the public college system is facing a $51 million hole in its 2021 budget. Colleges and universities will pull from their reserves and shift money from other funds to cover the gap.

But the state's financial outlook is also bleak. Lawmakers will have to make hard decisions next year if a projected $4.7 billion state budget deficit holds. Republicans have said colleges should not expect "status quo increases" to their budgets, while Democrats have cautioned the state has already cut funding enough for higher education.

During Wednesday's meeting, Winona State University President Scott Olson said the $75 million portion of the request would be of great help to the system's 37 colleges, many of which are experiencing enrollment declines because of the pandemic. The funds would help cover inflationary costs and increased expenses. Winona State will face an $8.5 million shortfall in fiscal year 2022, Olson said.

"That stabilization would be invaluable … to all the state universities," he said.

The request also includes $23 million for a scholarship program for economically vulnerable students, $15 million for student supports such as emergency grants and mental health resources, $6 million for investment in career and technical education programs and $1 million to expand the number of courses moving toward a free textbook model.

Emergency grants are an important lifeline for students struggling with food insecurity or other crises that could derail their education, said Ron Anderson, Minnesota State's senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

"Those are the things that can cause students to drop out and are out of their control," Anderson said.

In a letter to Gov. Tim Walz last month, Priscilla Mayowa, president of the statewide community college student association LeadMN, urged the governor not to impose deep cuts on colleges. State budget cuts of the past have disproportionately affected higher education, she said, resulting in colleges raising tuition to make up for the loss.

"With the impending budget crisis for the state of Minnesota, we can't balance campus budgets on the backs of students," Mayowa said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth