Politics and Government

DFL state senators introduce a tuition-free college bill

Senator Fateh speaks at a press conference
Sen. Omar Fateh speaks at a press conference on the tuition-free college bill on Tuesday.
Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

DFL legislators introduced a bill on Tuesday to make college tuition-free, following a push from student advocates to place college affordability and student basic needs on the legislative agenda. 

The proposed bill would cover the cost of tuition and fees to Minnesota public colleges and universities for all Minnesota students with a gross adjusted family income under $120,000 by Fall 2024. 

Chief author state Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced the bill on Tuesday, and it was heard in the Senate higher education committee, which he chairs. Beyond making education more accessible, he said, covering tuition would address the state’s workforce shortage and declining enrollment. 

“We've seen across the state — whether it's urban, rural, suburban — declining enrollment across the board. And right now we are really in a crisis, I would say we're in an emergency,” Fateh said. 

The bill, SF 1986, is co-authored by state senators Aric Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud; Robert Kupec, DFL-Moorhead; John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin; and Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. 

Putnam, a college professor in Collegeville near St. Cloud, pushed for more state investment in higher education.  

“I've seen the stress that students feel. I've seen the pain on my colleagues' faces because they don't know how to help young people deal with that stress because they don't have the resources to go elsewhere. Seeing class sizes balloon while options decrease. I've seen people take six years to graduate, instead of three or two. It's impossible what we're doing to our higher education system right now,” he said. 

During the higher education committee meeting, some Republican legislators expressed concern about addressing college affordability with publicly funded tuition assistance. Among them was state Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, who questioned high college administrator salaries amid tuition increases.  

“The schools see the assistance is there and can raise the salaries of the administration who ... the further the way you get from the student, the more money you make,” Rarick said.  

Students hold posters supporting tuition-free college
Students with LeadMN hold signs in support of a tuition-free college bill at a student-led rally outside the State Capitol on Tuesday.
Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

Students, leaders, faculty, and staff rallied at the State Capitol ahead of the bill’s introduction to lobby for college affordability, mental health resources, and ending college hunger.

Students United is a nonprofit advocacy group for four-year Minnesota State University schools. State Chair Kaileigh Weber said free higher education would address the basic needs many students struggle to meet. 

“When our state's leaders and legislators wonder why our state has workforce shortages or why young professionals are slow to buy a home, start families, or place roots in Minnesota, we're trying to tell you: tuition and higher education cost of attendance has skyrocketed,” Weber said. “We are struggling not only to afford tuition, but with food insecurity and lack of resources for mental health issues and our well- being.” 

Several students spoke of anxiety and worry they feel around paying for tuition or holding onerous student loan debt. 

About 60,000 Minnesotans would be served by a tuition-free college program, according to research estimates by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The total amount granted to students would be $314.8 million per year. 

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