More than 1,200 students attending the University of Minnesota's five campuses are taking classes for free this fall through a new tuition-free program for low-income families, one of the latest initiatives to make college more affordable.

The U's Promise Plus tuition program covers any leftover costs for Minnesota resident students whose families make $50,000 or less annually; these students already have most of their tuition covered by a mix of state and federal grants and need-based scholarships.

"For those families that are lower income, this kind of eliminates a barrier that many of them have in terms of their perception of the U," said Bob McMaster, the U's vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

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

Because students whose families earn $50,000 or less already receive substantial financial aid, the university has only needed to invest a "modest amount" to cover their remaining costs, McMaster said.

U leaders are already considering raising the program's income threshold to $60,000 and allowing transfer students to qualify, McMaster said, though those changes are not imminent.

"We know, in fact, that middle-income students actually have to borrow more, in many cases, than low-income students because they're getting very little gift aid," McMaster said. "Increasing the threshold of Promise Plus would be one of our long-term goals."

The university recently announced another tuition-free program, specifically for Native American students. Those who are enrolled members of one of Minnesota's 11 federally recognized tribal nations and whose families make up to $125,000 per year will be eligible for free or heavily discounted tuition at the U's five campuses starting in fall 2022.

Administrators do not yet have estimates of how many Native American students will benefit or how much the program will cost. But McMaster said he expects the program will help increase their enrollment.

U President Joan Gabel has made college affordability one of her top priorities. In her five-year strategic plan, she is seeking to reduce average undergraduate student debt to less than $25,000 — university graduates currently average about $27,000 in debt — and increase institutional scholarship aid by 10%, among other things.

One of the U's Big Ten peers, Ohio State University, recently announced a 10-year plan to give every undergraduate an opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree debt-free. Ohio State is seeking to raise $800 million over the next decade to expand scholarship, work and internship opportunities, thereby eliminating the need for loans in financial aid packages for undergraduates.

The U made a preliminary calculation of how much such an endeavor would cost and came up with upwards of $400 million per year, McMaster said. The university will continue to seek ways to reduce student debt, he said, but eliminating it would be a "pretty big lift."

"We know that tuition is not going to go down," McMaster said. "What can we do to make sure that … the cost of tuition and the cost of attendance is not a barrier for our low-income students to attend our university?"

The U is not the only Minnesota institution seeking to increase its affordability. Community colleges, which are generally much less expensive than universities, are coming up with new ways for students to attend for free in response to mounting concerns about loan debt.

In a recent survey from the community college student association LeadMN, 90% of nearly 4,500 student respondents said they struggled to pay for college and living expenses.

The state of Minnesota recently invested $35 million of federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to create a new grant program that will cover any remaining tuition for students pursuing two- and four-year degrees in certain high-demand fields. Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said he is pleased by the growing number of college affordability initiatives.

"We've got a lot of opportunity out there if you combine all the federal resources, state resources and even some of the new programs announced by the governor," Olson said.