U of Minnesota System makes tuition free for low-income students

Dive Brief:

  • The University of Minnesota System greenlit a program eliminating tuition costs for students whose families earn $50,000 or less in a year. 

  • The system’s regent board approved the move unanimously on Friday, according to local media reports. It’s a part of its five-year strategic plan, which also set the goal of reducing the average debt of undergraduates with loans to $25,000 at graduation.

  • President Joe Biden touted free college proposals on the campaign trail. Such arrangements have also seen renewed interest in the wake of the economic tumult of the pandemic. 

Dive Insight:

The governing board has reportedly been discussing a tuition-free program for a couple of months. Lower-income students across the system’s five campuses already have many expenses covered by need-based aid and state and federal grants, the Star Tribune reported. This aid would cover remaining tuition costs after those funds are applied.

However, President Joan Gabel noted in December that if a federal tuition-free initiative were to materialize, the system would instead be able to use its program to cover other expenses, such as food and housing, for these students, according to the publication.

The system did not respond to an email requesting comment by publication time Tuesday

Biden has pledged to make community college tuition-free for all students, and public four-year schools for families making less than $125,000 annually. 

But Biden’s vision hinges on significant state investment, which is much more challenging to achieve amid a recession. State budgets remain in flux, threatening public institutions’ finances. At least one state has already scaled back its free college program because of the pandemic. 

Despite the economic uncertainty, however, states and public colleges are preserving these types of affordability measures, recognizing the financial distress many students are experiencing. Lawmakers in Washington state promised to maintain their free college commitment, even though the state’s tax revenues are taking a hit.

The Minnesota system froze tuition for most students this academic year. Officials intend to have the new program in place next fall. 

Several state institutions started offering similar benefits in the last few years, building up need-based aid and expanding free college programs.

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