University of Minnesota leaders are considering creating a tuition-free program as soon as next year for state students whose families make $50,000 or less annually.
The proposal, part of President Joan Gabel's strategic plan for the flagship university, will be discussed by the Board of Regents on Friday. It's similar to a plan from President-elect Joe Biden to make four-year public colleges tuition-free for students whose families earn $125,000 or less per year.
"It's tuition for free. So, if they have other expenses … there could be other financial aid for that. But the part that we would guarantee in the program that we're working on is the tuition," Gabel said. The plan would apply to Minnesota students at the U's five campuses.
Undergraduate students from Minnesota and neighboring states pay about $15,000 per year in tuition and fees at the U's Twin Cities campus. That doesn't include room and board, which can cost up to $10,000 for students living in campus residence halls.
A U spokeswoman noted that students whose families make $50,000 per year or less already have most of their tuition covered by a mix of need-based scholarships and state and federal grants. Gabel's proposal would commit the university to covering any remaining tuition costs for these students. It's not clear yet how many students would benefit.
Documents submitted to the Board of Regents indicate the U administration wants to establish the tuition-free program by 2021. The board would decide whether to create the program and set the income threshold, Gabel said.
Regent Mike Kenyanya praised the U administration for targeting the tuition program to Minnesota students. The proposal is a "great start" in addressing college affordability, he said.
"While I'm proud … about the global reach and impact, we are the University of Minnesota and I think that's what the Minnesota families, state leadership and taxpayers expect of that," Kenyanya said.
Regent Ken Powell, the board's chairman, said the university is well-positioned to make this commitment because these students already have much of their tuition covered by other aid. Asked if a higher income threshold could be set, Powell said he wasn't sure if regents would support that.
The board's vice chairman, Steve Sviggum, was cautiously optimistic about the idea of a tuition-free program, so long as other students aren't asked to pay extra to support it.
"It would have to come from either other resources or state moneys or something like that," Sviggum said.
Regent Michael Hsu expressed similar concerns while noting that the program wouldn't be a "full ride." Students would still have to pay for room and board, food, textbooks and other costs.
Proposals for tuition-free college have gained momentum since Biden's election, as have calls to clear some student debt. The ideas have long been popular with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and now have the support of more moderate leaders such as Biden.
If the Biden administration were to implement its plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000, Gabel said the U program could instead help cover expenses such as food and housing for low-income students.
The U froze tuition for most students at its five campuses this academic year to provide relief during the pandemic. Gabel said she has not ruled out a tuition increase for the 2021-2022 academic year. However, she said administrators have made an "internal handshake commitment" to not increase tuition above the rate of inflation.
That commitment does not apply to tuition for out-of-state and international students, Gabel added.
Amy Ma, student body president at the U's Twin Cities campus, said she hopes the university can raise the income threshold for the tuition-free program with state and federal support. "The cost of tuition is still inaccessible for families making more than $50,000 annually."