Students whose families earn $50,000 per year or less will soon be able to attend the University of Minnesota's five campuses without paying a penny for tuition.

The U's Board of Regents on Friday unanimously approved the creation of the tuition-free program for lower-income Minnesota students. Regents also approved dozens of other long-term priorities, which include reducing student debt and administrative costs and increasing the share of classes the university offers in online and hybrid formats over the next five years.

"This is robust. It will guide us," U President Joan Gabel said of the school's 2025 strategic plan.

Students whose families make $50,000 per year or less already have most of their tuition covered by a mix of need-based scholarships and state and federal grants. The new program, which U leaders hope to have in place by this fall, will cover any leftover tuition costs for those students. It will not pay for additional fees or room and board expenses.

The program has the potential to benefit as many as 2,800 students annually, a U spokesman said.

Undergraduate students from Minnesota and neighboring states pay about $15,000 per year in tuition and fees at the university's flagship Twin Cities campus.

The new U program mirrors one that was in place under President Robert Bruininks in the early 2000s. The Founders Free Tuition Program, which was discontinued in 2010, combined federal, state and university grants to cover tuition and fees for Pell Grant-eligible Minnesota students, who demonstrated great financial need.

Tuition-free programs have become more popular in recent years at colleges across the country as a way to recruit more students without lowering overall sticker price. Several Big Ten schools — including Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State — have made similar pledges to cover tuition for low-income, in-state students.

Wisconsin covers leftover tuition costs for students whose families make $56,000 per year or less, while Purdue covers the costs for families making $70,000 or less.

James Farnsworth, a senior at the Twin Cities campus and candidate for the Board of Regents, said the tuition-free program is a key step toward making the university more accessible to underrepresented students.

But, he added, U leaders should also prioritize keeping tuition flat for all students.

"I think if we can do another tuition freeze it's something we should do," Farnsworth said.

Other five-year priorities approved Friday include reducing average undergraduate student debt to less than $25,000 — U graduates currently average about $27,000 in debt; increasing institutional scholarship aid by 10%; increasing the number of campus job opportunities for students and developing a systemwide student mental health initiative.

Several of the goals relate to diversity on and off campus: boosting recruitment and retention of students of color, cutting in half graduation rate disparities between students of color and their white classmates, and improving the university's relationship with tribal nations.

Regents praised Gabel for putting together a detailed five-year road map for the university while tackling pandemic challenges.

"I think this is really an outstanding and highly detailed framework for us," said Regent Ken Powell, chairman of the board.

Gabel expanded on the university's goal to offer more online and hybrid classes post-pandemic.

Distance learning offers more flexibility to students, she said, and it can help engage students who are more vulnerable or unable to travel frequently.

"It gives us the ability to literally meet students where they are," Gabel said. "The pandemic opened this up in a whole other way, and so now we see how that both opens the funnel for where we might put distributed learning but also inspires entirely new ways of doing distributed learning."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth