Below is testimony that LeadMN President Axel Kylander delivered to the Minnesota State Board of Trustees on October 20, 2021.
Chair Cowles and Trustees,
Today, the Star Tribune reported that the Minnesota State system lost 20,000 students. But we know that colleges and universities have been losing too many students for too many years. While the pandemic did make things much worse for students both economically and academically, the barriers that students face at our colleges has been a constant driver of this problem.
But the greatest barrier is ever rising tuition. A survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank found that students that chose to not enroll in college after intending to do so reported that financial concerns were the reason that they did not enroll in college for almost 3 in 4 individuals. And I want to thank Board members for acknowledging yesterday that rising tuition is having an impact on enrollment.
Given the state of enrollment in the System as well as the financial conditions students currently struggle in, funding for a tuition freeze is an urgent need. We’re glad the System is committing to pursuing that funding as a priority. Affordability has become an absolutely existential concern, not just for we students individually or as a community, but for our colleges and for our System. Tuition cannot continue to rise, and we’re glad to see that recognized for the coming legislative session.
We’re also very glad to see mental health and basic needs support included in the supplemental budget request, and especially glad to see that the requests in these areas are detailed and specific. These include many provisions that LeadMN has advocated for or encouraged at the System Office, including expansion of telehealth resources and mental health training programs for students and campus employees. Students need these resources now more than ever, and we have offered to work with the System Office on developing legislative language and introducing bills to support this endeavor.
Last session, our students have led the way by passing the Hunger Free Campus Act, MN College Mental Health Awareness Act, and Basic Needs Barrier Reduction legislation over the past few years and are excited to see Minnesota State include specific proposals tied to ongoing funding for both mental health and basic needs. That is almost $3 million in direct appropriation that colleges and universities will receive because of student advocacy. We are very proud of the work we’ve done as students on these issues, and look forward to continuing to lend our efforts to addressing these areas of concern.
There are critical areas that we believe the supplemental budget request could be improved upon to better support students. We strongly encourage the Board to include at least $200,000 in the budget request for Open Educational Resources. Since 2020 alone, OERs and Z-degrees have saved students over $4.3 million, and funding in affordable textbooks have a track record of being hugely beneficial to students.
We also encourage the Board to support LeadMN’s proposed legislation, HF2026, for Universal FAFSA completion in Minnesota. This has the potential to significantly improve access to financial support for current students, significantly bolster enrollment system wide, and synergize very well with the System’s stated interest in greater investment in workforce development and supporting the Minnesota Future Together grants.
Finally, the consultation process needs to start earlier and actually be consultative in nature rather than just informing us. There needs to be a formalized consultation process and timeline that starts earlier around matters as critical as budget requests. Student associations and other stakeholder groups need to be brought to the deliberative table at the start of its discussion, not now after the first reading has been presented, where there is scarcely a month for additional input and much of the proposal is already assembled.
There are great measures in this proposal, and areas with great potential in expansion, but the supplemental budget would be better-assembled and better-strategized if the perspectives, concerns, and skillsets of every group within the system was allowed to be proactively and deeply engaged in this process.
It would be to the benefit of us all, it would be of greatest benefit to the students the System is meant to serve, and it would live up to what is stated on the paper of Board policy, the need for System leadership to truly consult and work with stakeholders, rather than here our comments on important initiatives once the ship has already begun to sail. Thank you for your time today.