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Omnibus higher education policy bill heads to governor

Putting sharper teeth into state law was the motivation for much of this session’s omnibus higher education policy bill.

Legislators looked at the increasing number of for-profit career schools that have closed in recent years, and decided to give more power to the Office of Higher Education – the agency responsible for administering the state’s financial aid programs – to take action against schools that seem to be in danger of closure.

On Sunday, the House passed HF3392/SF3683*, sponsored by Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-New Brighton) and Sen. Paul Anderson (R-Plymouth), by a 127-5 vote. The bill, which was passed 67-0 by the Senate Thursday, is now on its way to the governor for his signature.

Under the bill, the Office of Higher Education would have expanded power to revoke, suspend or refuse to renew a school’s registration or licensure, or its participation in state financial aid programs. The office would also:

  • be allowed to prohibit schools receiving state financial aid from withdrawing a student from class or suspending them due to an unpaid student account balance;
  • collect a fee from schools for participation in the Statewide Authorization Reciprocity Agreement program;
  • establish loan limits for the state’s student loan program;
  • modify the state’s student loan forgiveness program for those teaching in areas with teacher shortages;
  • expand eligibility for the Office of Higher Education’s Child Care Grant program;
  • consult with a newly formed Tribal Nations Education Committee;
  • require degree-granting schools to establish a process for student complaints; and
  • make changes to the Large Animal Veterinarian Loan Forgiveness Program.

The Office of Higher Education would also collaborate with the Department of Education on evaluating concurrent enrollment programs — through which high school students attend college classes — and set an annual goal for the percentage of Minnesota high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA).

Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) objected to encouraging more high school seniors to complete federal financial aid applications.

“I believe that our students who qualify for federal financial aid should be able to apply for these funds. It’s a benefit for all Minnesotans to have our students succeed,” Bernardy replied.

The bill would also make changes to the state’s 529 college savings plan to conform state law to changes in federal law that permit:

  • qualified distributions for up to $10,000 of K-12 tuition expenses;
  • apprenticeship program expenses;
  • student loan payments for the beneficiary or the beneficiary’s sibling; and
  • rollovers to “Achieving a Better Life Experience” (or ABLE) accounts.

Nonpartisan House fiscal staff estimate there is no cost to the state’s General Fund from the bill’s provisions.

Bernardy spoke of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Division hearings after a for-profit school, Argosy University, folded abruptly in spring of 2019.

“We heard heartbreaking stories from students who were just a class or two away from graduation when Argosy University closed,” Bernardy said. “With the state’s help, most of them were able to graduate and become financially whole again. They asked us to prevent that from ever happening to another student. So we came up with a student protection bill. It’s not as strong a bill as we hoped to bring to the floor, but it takes steps.”

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