Minnesota Legislature Wrestles with Higher Education

Students face urgent legislative needs in a historic year. 

By Axel Kylander, Staff Writer

The future of higher education has been at the forefront of decisions for Minnesota’s state legislature in its 92nd session, which began on January 5 and will end on May 17. In a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on students, legislators have had to consider numerous issues and bills to best address a student community already struggling before the pandemic hit.

Minnesota’s capitol is less bustling than it has been in past sessions, but the legislature is no less busy. (Image credit: Star Tribune)

Tuition Dilemma

Minnesota’s colleges and universities have been experiencing a slow, steady enrollment decline for the past decade and this, alongside low state investment in higher education, has meant an increasingly unaffordable college experience for many students or would-be students. In addition to struggling to pay for tuition and textbooks, students have also faced a mounting crisis on issues like food and housing insecurity, as well as struggles with their mental health. All of these patterns have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Last summer, with an anticipated steep budget deficit, extensive cuts to the state’s higher education budget seemed likely, as it is assumed that cuts to state investment can be compensated for in college and university budgets by raising tuition for students. However, budget projections early in the legislative session revealed Minnesota’s legislature had a surplus to work with, opening up opportunities to reduce or freeze costs for students.

The Issues

The question of affordability loomed large for the legislature and wasn’t limited to the matter of tuition rates. Legislators also had to examine, and heard testimony on, issues such as textbook costs and higher tuition being charged for classes that were forced to go online due to the pandemic. The ability to afford college, long the foremost concern for students, gained an additional layer of urgency this year with the loss of working hours or outright jobs amidst the pandemic, a trend which has disproportionately impacted America’s college student population.

Legislators were often able to work from home this session, including when taking their oaths of office. (Image credit: Star Tribune)

The basic needs of students, like food, housing, and transportation, have often been put at risk by the high cost of college as well as the numerous directions students are pulled in by all the demands of school and life. As with affordability, this issue has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with students especially reporting significantly increased rates of mental health struggles. Addressing basic needs and especially mental health became a funding priority for Governor Walz as the legislative session started, and senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle took up an interest in the matter.

Systemic inequities have always been a fixture of higher education in Minnesota, with funding structures and administrative policies having disproportionate negative impacts on students of color. And so, many of the legislative matters for community and technical colleges this legislative session were also fundamentally about equity, about adequate funding and support for institutions who serve more students of color than all the universities in Minnesota combined.

Where are we now?

The Minnesota Senate and House have each passed their own higher education omnibus bills, and from here a conference committee with members from both chambers will work together to reconcile the two bills into one final proposal to send to the governor.

Highlights from the omnibus bills include over $2 million in funding for student mental health and basic needs, funding for expanding open-educational resources and workforce development scholarships, and proposals to reduce or freeze tuition in the Minnesota State System.

With less than a week to go in the legislative session, the conference committee is still negotiating a final bill, and with rumors of a special session of the legislature around the corner, higher education may be one topic that needs more time to reach a solution.