The Minnesota State system of public universities and community colleges is seeking state funding to freeze tuition in the next academic year as it continues to grapple with declining enrollment.

Minnesota State leaders plan to ask the Legislature for $25 million next year in exchange for not increasing tuition by up to 3.5% in the 2022-23 academic year. The push to hold tuition flat comes after the system raised it by about 3% in both of the past two semesters.

"The tuition freeze is the key part here. We're listening to what students need and making this more affordable," said April Nishimura, a member of Minnesota State's board of trustees.

A board committee unanimously approved the state funding request proposal Tuesday. It will go before the full board Wednesday.

The system of 30 community colleges and seven universities has experienced a sharp enrollment drop during the pandemic, with its total student population decreasing from nearly 172,000 in fall 2019 to 153,000 this semester. Minnesota State's enrollment had been decreasing for years before the pandemic, albeit at a slower pace.

Despite the enrollment spiral, Minnesota State was able to balance its budget this year with the help of one-time federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars. Those funds, which came with stipulations, cannot be used to freeze tuition, system administrators say. Half of the funding has been distributed to students in the form of emergency grants, financial aid and debt forgiveness, however.

Mike Dean, executive director of the community college student association LeadMN, urged lawmakers to take the system's request seriously.

LeadMN just completed a survey of some 6,400 community college students, and about 42% reported they have thought about dropping out of school in the past six months. Many students cited emotional stress and "financial pressure" for why they had considered leaving, Dean said.

"We need to make college more affordable, especially with the pandemic," Dean said. "I think this is an opportunity for legislators to support students."

The proposed tuition freeze is included in the system's overall supplemental budget request to the Legislature, which totals $60 million. That request also includes $30 million for supporting campus operations, among other things.

Joe Mulford, president of Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, said the funding would help offset inflationary increases to expenses such as supplies for trade programs.

"Inflation is the real deal right now on our campuses," Mulford said.

Trustee Kathy Sheran noted the system has not had much success in getting its supplemental budget requests funded by the Legislature in recent years. Higher education needs to be a "high priority" in next year's legislative session, she said, since the state's support for colleges has declined over the years and institutions have weathered unforeseen costs and enrollment losses during the pandemic.

"Oftentimes, we hear environmental issues or broadband or transportation, but higher ed we don't hear … the elected people saying this is a priority in the next session," she said. "And I'd like to see that happen."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth