The Minnesota House last week considered a $2.75 billion funding bill for our colleges and universities. As a member of the House Higher Education Finance Committee, I put considerable time and effort into this bill and I believe it takes several positive steps to improve access and quality in our higher education system.
Businesses repeatedly say that Minnesota’s educated work force is a major reason they choose to locate here. Well, part of the reason we are so well educated is that students have relatively easy access to post-secondary education. One of the ways we do that is through the state grant program. We will fund $281 million in state grants over the next two years to help low- to moderate income students attend college and give them the tools they need to be competitive in today’s demanding workforce.
We recognized challenges facing today’s students by changing the qualification requirements for state grants. In the past, students spent four years – or eight semesters – earning their degree and rarely did they stay beyond that. But as programs grow more complex, many students find themselves taking a ninth semester to complete their requirements. Instead of having to take out loans to pay for that extra time, “super seniors” as they’re called will now be eligible for one more semester of state grants so they can finish their education with as little debt as possible.
Work study is one of the most student-friendly ways a college student can pay for his or her education. Working on campus often provides a more flexible schedule than an off-campus job and many students conveyed to us how important work study options are. To that end, we will fund nearly $25 million worth of work study jobs so students can have the satisfaction of at least partially working off their college debts while they are in college.
But it’s not just about access; we can never stop improving the quality of our higher education system. We do that by encouraging Centers of Excellence in the MnSCU system. MnSCU (short for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) consists of several institutions, many of which duplicate successful programs. Centers of Excellence would allow schools to focus on one area such as manufacturing technology, health care, or teacher education, just to name a few. Consolidating our expertise in one place instead of spreading it out across several schools will improve efficiency and help draw students to universities in Greater Minnesota.
Our higher education bill also takes the first step toward creating a world-leading university in Rochester. The current partnership between the University of Minnesota and two smaller schools works well, but there is potential for so much more. The House voted to spend $3.2 million to begin developing an independent, publicly incorporated university in Rochester. Along with $15 million to fund the Genomic Partnership with the Mayo Foundation, I believe we are on the road to creating a medical research and teaching university that is second to none.
Access and quality. Those two ideals are the keys to our higher education systems in Minnesota. I believe we fully addressed these two issues this year and I look forward to seeing their positive effects on our schools and our state.