Minnesota students could file college applications for free and receive more financial aid if state lawmakers support a slew of higher education proposals included in Gov. Tim Walz's spending plan.
Walz's proposed supplemental budget would establish a college application fee waiver program, expand some state grant programs, and fund new scholarships at the University of Minnesota, among other things.
"This pandemic has only exacerbated the need for further support for our students in our higher ed institutions in Minnesota," Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said during a recent news conference with Walz. "The governor's budget will bolster efforts currently in place that we know are absolutely working while making important new investments as well."
The governor's focus on affordability comes amid growing concerns about the sticker price of college and the burden of student loan debt. House Democrats also have signaled support for some of these proposals and for freezing tuition at Minnesota State schools. Senate Republicans have lowering college costs in mind, too, as well as bolstering programs that could help develop the state's workforce.
The college application fee waiver program would start as a pilot with an initial $10 million investment. It would eliminate college application fees for undergraduate applicants at the state's public, private and tribal colleges.
Minnesota college students who qualify for the state grant program could receive awards for up to 10 semesters — a change from the current maximum of eight — under Walz's plan. The average state grant award is about $2,600.
About $7 million would be used to create a new competitive grant program encouraging campuses to establish or expand support services for college students who have children. Students who are parenting children face more barriers to completing their degree, and research shows they benefit from special advising, support groups and help navigating public benefit programs.
A state emergency grant program for college students also would get a modest funding boost from the governor's budget proposal, as would grant programs for student teachers.
The University of Minnesota would receive an additional $43 million for the current budget cycle, which runs through June 30, 2023, and Minnesota State would get $39 million.
Part of the U's funding would be used to create a new Greater Minnesota scholarship to attract more resident students to the U's Duluth, Rochester, Morris and Crookston campuses. The U had pitched this new program, which comes at a cost of $30 million, as part of its larger legislative request.
Every Minnesota resident who attends the U's outstate campuses would receive a scholarship of $3,000-$4,000 in their freshman year and an additional $4,000-$5,000 spread over their sophomore through senior years. Myron Frans, the U's senior vice president for finance and operations, told the Board of Regents in December that between 8,500-9,500 students would benefit from the scholarship program.
Minnesota State's funding allocation would go toward campus operations support and the creation of a statewide basic needs resources hub that would help students more easily access resources on their campuses.
House Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, recently said her committee will look at various college affordability proposals this year.
Sen. David Tomassoni, an Independent from Chisholm who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said his panel will also look at ways to help students pay for college. And it will discuss how state colleges can help address current workforce shortages.
"By targeting grants or scholarship funding to programs and people, we will address the major gaps in critical sectors of our state workforce," Tomassoni said.
Bernardy's committee heard from students Wednesday about pressing issues they want addressed.
Representatives from the Minnesota Association of Private College Students asked the House panel to consider raising the maximum state grant award allocation.
Axel Kylander, president of the community college student association LeadMN, urged lawmakers to consider paying for a tuition cut at Minnesota State's 30 community and technical colleges. LeadMN's requested tuition cut of nearly 17% would cost $125 million.
"A tuition cut like this has never been done in a community and technical college system and could have an outsized impact on enrollment and our future workforce," Kylander said.