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Tuition free or frozen? Higher ed conference committee launches discussion

Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. and Sen. Omar Fateh confer before Wednesday’s first meeting of the higher education conference committee. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)
Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. and Sen. Omar Fateh confer before Wednesday’s first meeting of the higher education conference committee. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)

“Grab them by the budgets” is a phrase that Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. (DFL-Winona) has been using since this session’s first meeting of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. The committee’s chair has emphasized that legislators have much to say about how the state’s public colleges and universities operate, purely because they hold the purse strings.

On Wednesday, crafting a final budget agreement for those schools was in focus as the higher education conference committee met for the first time. Its task is to find common ground between Pelowski’s HF2073 and changes the Senate made in the bill that passed that chamber in an incarnation sponsored by Sen. Omar Fateh (DFL-Mpls).

[MORE: Watch the meeting via Senate TV]

This conference committee has an advantage over many others, in that their bills have precisely the same bottom line of $4.16 billion. Only K-12 education and health and human services hold larger slices of the state budget pie.

After a walk-through comparison of the two bills, the committee got straight to work, agreeing on $56 million in spending by adopting items for which the House and Senate have identical appropriations. These include:

  • $17.7 million for state grant simplification and federal conformity;
  • $17 million for American Indian scholarships;
  • $6 million for tribal college grants and operations;
  • $4.2 million to maintain current service levels at the Office of Higher Education;
  • $2 million for inclusive higher education;
  • $1.7 million for an increase in Minnesota State individual retirement plan contributions;
  • $1.5 million for the Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System;
  • $1.1 million for Direct Admissions Minnesota;
  • $1.1 million for Fostering Independence higher education grants; and
  • $1 million for a Fostering Independence grant wraparound service program.

What’s the difference?

Here’s what the House and Senate propose allocating to the four entities within the scope of their higher education budget during the 2024-25 biennium:

Minnesota State system: House $1.91 billion; Senate $1.84 billion.

University of Minnesota: House $1.58 billion; Senate $1.48 billion.

Office of Higher Education: House $669.4 million; Senate $843.7 million.

Mayo Foundation: House $3.6 million; Senate $3.6 million.

[MORE: View the spreadsheet]

The Office of Higher Education is responsible for the state’s financial aid programs, and the $174.3 million gap between the House and Senate proposals is the biggest one to bridge between the two bills. That difference stems primarily from the Senate’s desire to put $176.9 million more toward the “Minnesota Commitment to Higher Education,” which doesn’t appear in the House bill.

The Senate plan would offer free tuition for schools within the Minnesota State or University of Minnesota systems or any tribal college. Scholarships would be available to any graduating high school student from a family with an adjusted gross household income below $120,000.

Among other significant differences in dollars, the Senate proposes allocating:

  • $24 million more in Minnesota State campus one-time support;
  • $20 million more for University of Minnesota Health Sciences’ CentraCare partnership;
  • $8.8 million more for emergency assistance for postsecondary students;
  • $6.9 million more for a state grant program living and miscellaneous expenses increase;
  • $4.4 million more for a student parent support initiative;
  • $4 million more for the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute; and
  • $3 million more for Minnesota State central offices and shared services.

Meanwhile, the House exceeds the Senate in these outlays:

  • $75 million more for a Minnesota State tuition freeze;
  • $65 million more for University of Minnesota core mission support;
  • $48 million more for a University of Minnesota enrollment tuition shortfall;
  • $12.5 million more for Minnesota State workforce development scholarships;
  • $10 million more for University of Minnesota systemwide safety and security;
  • $7 million more for grants to student teachers in shortage areas;
  • $5.4 million more for an allied health technician scholarship program;
  • $5 million more for Minnesota State equipment and learning environments; and
  • $4.2 million more for teacher shortage loan forgiveness.

Policy differences are mostly tied to new programs that are in one of the bills, but not the other, such as the Senate’s proposal for free tuition at all schools within the Minnesota State and University of Minnesota systems vs. the House’s freeze on Minnesota State tuition.

[NOTE: A comparison of policy differences between the two bills]

In the Senate bill, but not the House, are provisions related to:

  • access to free menstrual products;
  • a hunger-free campus designation and related grants;
  • establishing a working group on postsecondary student basic needs; and
  • requiring a report on Minnesota State course placement practices.

In the House bill, but not the Senate, are provisions related to:

  • dual training competency grants;
  • workforce development scholarships;
  • postsecondary unemployment insurance aid;
  • a paramedic scholarship program;
  • an allied health technician scholarship program; and
  • higher education bonding policy.



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