Leaders from the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State college systems pleaded for a state funding boost during a virtual Senate committee hearing Tuesday, telling lawmakers their investment is necessary to meet a growing number of student needs.

The state's two public college systems are seeking relief as they wrestle with daunting budget deficits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U is grappling with an estimated $166 million shortfall while Minnesota State faces a $51 million hole this fiscal year.

With an increase in state funding, system leaders say they could steady their finances, improve academic programs and ramp up student support services.

"We need to do more and scale up our work in the face of powerful forces of disruption and change," Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra told lawmakers. "Who our students are and how they learn is changing. How our campuses will respond to new budget realities during a time of pandemic will have substantial impact on how much more we can do."

Minnesota State is seeking a $120 million increase to its two-year state budget appropriation. The request includes $75 million to help stabilize the system's 37 colleges and universities, which have incurred unexpected expenses due to the pandemic. It also includes $23 million for the creation of a scholarship program to support students with financial needs, and $15 million to fund emergency grants for vulnerable students and expand mental health resources.

"Mental health needs continue to grow and are identified as the number one health issue on our 54 campuses," said Bill Maki, Minnesota State's vice chancellor for finance and facilities.

The U is seeking a roughly $47 million increase to its state appropriation over the next two years, which administrators say would help retain employees, maintain facilities and improve academic programs. U President Joan Gabel said it's the school's lowest requested budget increase in two decades.

"We understand completely that the state budget deficit is significant and real," Gabel said.

When asked if the U plans to increase tuition in the coming academic year, Gabel said a decision has not yet been made. If tuition were increased for Minnesota undergraduates, it would be a "last resort" and would not rise above inflation, she said.

Over the coming months, the divided Minnesota Legislature must craft a two-year state budget that closes a predicted deficit of about $1.3 billion in 2022 and 2023.

Senators mostly listened during Tuesday's higher education committee meeting and did not offer feedback on the college systems' funding prospects. State Sen. David Tomassoni, an independent from Chisholm who chairs the committee, said in a recent interview he hopes the Legislature will adequately fund the state's colleges.

"My instincts tell me that they're going to need more funding. To stay at base-level funding is probably to cut jobs," Tomassoni said. "I would hope that we figure out a way to keep these places whole."

The hearing also featured testimony from Paul Cerkvenik, president of the Minnesota Private College Council. Private colleges do not receive state funding. Cerkvenik instead argued for a $67.5 million investment in the Minnesota state grant program, which he said would bump up the average grant award by more than $300 and make college more affordable.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234