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House passes higher education conference committee report

It’s that time of year when diplomas are handed out, tassels switch sides on a cap and collegians become alumni of the institution of their choice.

A conference report passed Friday by the House aims to help students who are years away from graduating from the University of Minnesota, a Minnesota State college or university or other postsecondary school.

HF3872 generated a sharp debate in the House, but dissenting voices didn’t prevail.

Sponsored by Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-New Brighton) and Sen. David Tomassoni (I-Chisholm), the conference committee report on the omnibus higher education bill was passed 68-63 Friday. It now goes to the Senate for expected weekend action.

The bulk of additional $20 million in the current biennial spending would support workforce development programs for various trades, new initiatives to support student parents and increase access for students with intellectual disabilities, and make investments in the state grant program.

More than 65,000 Minnesota students will receive an increase in state grants, Bernardy said, but added more investment is needed to increase opportunities while helping students become debt-free.

“Cost should never be a barrier to accessing higher education,” Rep. Shelly Christensen (DFL-Stillwater) said in a statement.

Of new spending, Bernardy highlighted the program to recruit and train students to become certified nursing assistants, grants to the state’s tribal colleges and scholarships to student-teachers of color to earn their credentials. It would also address the skilled workforce shortage, and help create economic growth for the state in the long run.

“We have a lot to be proud of in this bill,” she said.

[MORE: View the spreadsheetagreement summary]

Higher education is about reducing barriers and giving an opportunity for all, said Rep. Heather Keeler (DFL-Moorhead). She welcomes the $1 million to each to three tribal colleges for general operations and maintenance.

Rep. Nolan West (R-Blaine) criticized the bill as “wasteful spending” because the biennial state budget has already been funded. He was particularly critical of $1 million earmarked for Owatonna Learn to Earn Coalition, to, in part, conduct a comprehensive local needs assessment of current and future workforce needs in the region, saying a higher education bill seems to be funding a high school program in one city.

Promoting higher education for the sake of granting diplomas to all is unsustainable, said Rep. Tony Albright (R-Prior Lake). He asked, rhetorically, if a four-year college degree guarantees a good life, and said if colleges end up providing remedial education to students, the concept of higher education as most people understand it today, leaves a lot to be desired.

“College is not a right,” Albright said.

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