Tuition help bill struggles for attention, would help low-income Minnesota students pay for college

A proposal has surfaced at the state Capitol this session to diversify campuses, close the achievement gap and make Minnesota colleges more accessible for low-income students, but it isn’t gaining traction.

The bill asks a task force, including University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and the chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, to form an endowment to help fund college tuition for low-income Minnesota high school students.

Legislators and community leaders say universities and the state would benefit if low-income Minnesota high school students got extra help paying their college tuition, but the proposed “unsession” may be a hurdle.

The House Education Policy Committee heard the proposal, authored by Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, earlier this month.

“The dream of going to college just seems impossible for so many of our young people today,” Moran said at the hearing.

But the bill was referred to the House’s Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, where it likely won’t be reviewed this session, committee Chair and Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said in a press release.

Pelowski said he has “firm restrictions to prevent” the passage of bills that create new commissions, advisory task forces or panels.

After its formation, the task force proposed by the bill would decide how to fund the endowment.

Council on Black Minnesotans board member Benjamin Mchie said at this month’s hearing that the endowment would increase college enrollment of African-American students, among other minority groups.

“This realization chokes out the drive for academic success,” he said.

President Barack Obama announced an initiative last week, called “My Brother’s Keeper,” to improve students’ access to higher education, focusing specifically on young men of color.

Tuition costs can make a diploma seem unattainable for minority students, Mchie said. But if there’s a tangible option to help with the expenses, he said, high school students might work harder to graduate.

In 2013, less than 60 percent of Native American, Hispanic and African-American high school students in Minnesota graduated in four years, compared to 85 percent of white students.

Moran said at the hearing that the proposed endowment would be like the Power of You program, which helps cover tuition costs for two years or up to 72 credits at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and St. Paul College. But instead, the state program would apply to any college or university in Minnesota.

University administrators are currently working to diversify the student body, starting with increasing the University’s black student population, with new initiatives led by Vice President for Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert.

About one in six University students are students of color, and only about one in every 27 students are black.

In accordance with the “unsession,” the higher education committee will focus on bonding requests from the University and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, as well as removing and updating state laws, Pelowski said in the release.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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