Ds Scholarship

More than 1,200 U students benefit from new tuition-free program

More than 1,200 students on the University of Minnesota’s five campuses are attending classes for free this fall through a new, tuition-free program for low-income families, one of the latest initiatives to make college more affordable.

The Promise Plus tuition program at U covers any remaining costs for students who are Minnesota residents whose families earn $50,000 or less annually; These students actually get most of their tuition covered by a mix of state, federal, and needs-based scholarships.

“For low-income families, this removes the kind of barrier that many of them have in terms of their perception of U,” said Bob McMaster, vice dean of U and dean of undergraduate education.

Undergraduate students from Minnesota pay approximately $15,000 annually in tuition and fees at U.S.’s flagship Twin Cities campus.

Because students whose families earn $50,000 or less already receive significant financial assistance, McMaster said, the university only needs to invest a “modest amount” to cover their remaining costs.

McMaster said U leaders are already considering raising the program’s income threshold to $60,000 and allowing transfer students to qualify, although those changes aren’t imminent.

“We know, in fact, that middle-income students actually have to borrow more, in many cases, than lower-income students because they get so little gift aid,” McMaster said. “Increasing the threshold for Promise Plus will be one of our long-term goals.”

The university recently announced another tuition-free program, especially for Native American students. Those who are enrolled in members of one of the 11 recognized tribal states in Minnesota whose families earn up to $125,000 annually will be eligible for free or significantly reduced tuition fees on the U’s five campuses beginning in fall 2022.

Officials do not have estimates yet for how many Native American students will benefit or how much the program will cost. But McMaster said he expects the program to help increase their enrollment.

U President Joan Gabel has made college affordability one of her top priorities. In its five-year strategic plan, it seeks to reduce average undergraduate debt below $25,000 — college graduates currently have an average debt of about $27,000 — and increase institutional scholarship aid by 10%, among other things.

Ohio State University, a peer at Ohio State University, has announced a 10-year plan to give every undergraduate student the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree debt-free. Ohio State seeks to raise $800 million over the next decade to expand scholarship, work, and training opportunities, thereby eliminating the need to include loans in undergraduate financial aid packages.

McMaster said U did a preliminary calculation of how much such an endeavor would cost and came to well over $400 million annually. He said the university would continue to look for ways to reduce student debt, but that eliminating it would be a “very big boost”.

“We know the tuition won’t go down,” McMaster said. “What can we do to make sure that … the cost of tuition and the cost of attendance are not a barrier for our low-income students to attend our university?”

U is not the only Minnesota institution seeking to increase its affordability. Community colleges, which are generally much less expensive than universities, are devising new ways for students to enroll for free in response to growing concerns about loan debt.

In a recent survey by the LeadMN Community College Students Association, 90% of nearly 4,500 students surveyed said they struggled to pay for college and living expenses.

The state of Minnesota recently invested $35 million in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to create a new scholarship program that will cover any remaining tuition fees for students pursuing two- and four-year degrees in some high-demand fields. Minnesota’s commissioner for higher education, Dennis Olson, said he is pleased with the growing number of college affordability initiatives.

“We have a lot of opportunity if you bring together all the federal resources, state resources, and even some of the new programs that the governor has announced,” Olson said.

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