Higher education budget bill with free college for families earning less than $80K headed to Walz

Published 8:51 am Thursday, May 11, 2023

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By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

A bill that would provide education at public colleges and universities in Minnesota without cost for tuition to students from families with annual incomes of less than $80,000 is headed to Gov. Tim Walz.

The bill also freezes tuition for two years in the Minnesota state system, and aims to hold down tuition increases at the University of Minnesota. The Legislature can’t require a tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota because it is constitutionally autonomous.

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Overall the bill spends $416 billion on higher education over the next two years, an increase of $650 million over the current budget.

The Senate passed the final version of the bill Wednesday 34-30 after the House passed it Tuesday, both largely along party lines in the Democratic-controlled chambers.

The chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, said the goal of the bill is to allow students to focus on being students, not on the cost of their education.

“We’re making a promise to them that if they work hard that we’re going to cover your tuition,” Fateh said. “And we’re going to go beyond that. We’re going to have a Pell match. Because we learned from you, the students, that school is much more expensive not just because of tuition, but because of the cost of living on campus and being a student.”

Many Republicans voted against the bill and some argued that the nearly $120 million Northstar Promise tuition program squeezed out other higher education priorities, including lower tuition for all students.

During the House debate Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, called it a “move toward socialism,” and said the approach lacks fiscal accountability for schools that won’t have incentive to hold down costs later.

“The higher education institutions just raise tuition because they know that the money is going to keep coming out of the spigot,” Scott said. “This is irresponsible.”

The free tuition would cover about 15,000 students. Other opponents of the approach said if the money were spread out, it could help many more families and not just those with incomes under $80,000.

“I am more than happy to work with you to make it universal, because that is my ultimate goal,” said Fateh, who earlier in the session had proposed making public colleges free to attend for students with family incomes of up to $120,000. “But this is a damn good first step.”