May 31, 2023 - News

Minnesota to provide free college tuition to undocumented students

Illustration of a graduation cap but the tassel is a ladder.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Minnesota students who are undocumented immigrants will be eligible for the state's new tuition-free college program, government officials confirmed to Axios.

The big picture: Democrats used their majority in the Legislature to add a number of state benefits for noncitizens living here.

What they're saying: "We want to make sure that when we're expanding opportunities for everybody, we're doing it for all Minnesotans, regardless of background, regardless of their documentation status," Senate Higher Education Chair Omar Fateh (DFL-Minneapolis) told Axios.

How it works: The free college initiative, dubbed "North Star Promise," will cover tuition at two- or four-year schools in the University of Minnesota or Minnesota State systems for students whose families make $80,000 or less annually.

  • In order to qualify, applicants must meet residency requirements, such as graduating from a Minnesota high school or living here for 12 months without being enrolled in college more than half-time.
  • Students will also need to submit a FAFSA form and remain in good academic standing.

Between the lines: Getting a degree can be especially challenging for people without legal status, advocates say. Just 5 to 10% of students without legal status who graduate from high school in the U.S. continue to higher education, per the Hechinger Report.

  • Cost is seen as a major barrier, as undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipients who were brought to the country as minors, are not eligible for federal financial aid.

The other side: Republicans have previously raised concerns about the free college program, which passed as part of a broader higher education spending bill.

  • Some argued that the $80,000 threshold would shut out students whose parents already work multiple jobs to support their families.
  • Others complained about being left out of the legislation process.

Zoom out: Minnesota was already among a small number of states that provides access to in-state tuition, as well as scholarships and other state financial aid, to students regardless of their immigration status.

Yes, but: It's unclear if the programs are making significant inroads. One recent California study found just 14% of eligible undocumented students had taken advantage of state aid available there.

Zoom in: Neither Fateh nor the state Department of Higher Education has an estimate for how many undocumented students will qualify for the new program.

What's next: Students who submit a FAFSA or Minnesota Dream Act application for the 2024-2025 school year will be automatically considered for the free tuition program. Those deemed eligible will be notified as part of their financial aid package, a department of higher education spokesperson told Axios.

  • Fateh, whose parents are immigrants from Somalia, said he plans to do outreach over the summer at high schools to spread the word.

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