The Potluck

Students could get free tuition for Minnesota colleges, universities under DFL proposal 

By: - February 21, 2023 8:12 pm

Demonstrators gathered on the Capitol steps on Tuesday, Feb. 21, in support of free tuition for Minnesota’s public colleges and universities. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

State lawmakers are considering a bill to give most in-state students free tuition to Minnesota’s colleges and universities.

DFL senators proposed creating the Minnesota Commitment to Higher Education Act, which would allow eligible Minnesota residents who are enrolled in a public state college or university to apply for a grant to cover the entire cost of their tuition and fees.

A student would qualify for the grant program if they met the following requirements:

  • Has completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Is enrolled at a Minnesota state college, Minnesota state university, in any of the University of Minnesota’s five campuses or in a tribal college. 
  • Has a family adjusted gross income of less than $120,000.
  • Hasn’t earned an undergraduate degree.
  • Is enrolled in at least one credit per semester.
  • Is meeting satisfactory academic standards.

The bill’s fiscal note estimates that nearly 59,000 Minnesota students would qualify for free tuition — costing the state about $315 million annually. That would increase Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed higher ed budget by 70%.

“We have the unique opportunity right now to ensure that we’re no longer burdening our students with student debt,” said Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, at a rally on the Capitol steps Tuesday. “In one of the richest states in the richest nation on Earth, it’s immoral to continue on the path that we’re continuing on right now.” (Fateh is also currently employed by the University of Minnesota as a business analyst).

Fateh, who is the bill’s chief author and the chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said later at a press conference that granting free tuition to students would also help fix Minnesota’s severe workforce shortage and boost enrollment in Minnesota colleges, which face grim demographic prospects in the coming years.

The grant program under the bill (SF1986) would be administered by the Office of Higher Education and begin in the fall 2024.

University of Minnesota Regent Darrin Rosha, who testified Tuesday on his own behalf and not for the U’s Board of Regents, said he is in favor of the intent of the bill but warned about the possibility of the program leading to profligate spending, like on administrator raises.

“You need to put guardrails on the expense side,” Rosha told lawmakers. “Otherwise, it will likely end up making a few powerful people wealthier on the backs of your good intentions … We have not done the current generation of students any favors with the increasing national and state cost of higher education. The time to reverse this trend is now.”

Republicans on the Senate Higher Education Committee on Tuesday said they were concerned about the high annual cost. The committee referred the bill to the Senate Finance Committee.

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.