We’re nearing that time of year when college students are heading back to campus. As a mother to one recent college graduate, a junior in college, and another beginning her university tours, I know how exciting it can be to see our children prepare for their future. But as a parent, I also know the strain paying for a quality higher education can put on a family budget, as well as the stress of seeing your child strapped with large amounts of student debt after they graduate and enter the workforce.

Sharing Minnesotans concerns over the rising costs of college tuition, state leaders came together this session to pass a bipartisan, student-focused higher education budget which was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in May. That budget offers additional tuition relief to more than 400,000 Minnesota college students, expands academic opportunities and improves student safety on campus.

First, Republicans and Democrats worked across the aisle to craft a budget that provides $3 billion to the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) systems over the next two years-a $166 million increase. These additional investments in higher education allow for a tuition freeze in 2016 and a 1 percent tuition reduction in 2017 for two-year MnSCU colleges, and a tuition freeze in 2017 for four-year MnSCU universities. Our budget also allocates $22.2 million in tuition relief for students at the U of M.

While tuition wasn’t frozen at the U of M this session, Republican legislators worked vigorously to encourage serious reforms to our state’s land grant university. First, there is the fact that the U of M touted the lowest non-resident tuition in the Big Ten, while charging near the very top for in-state residents. Attracting top talent from across the country is important, but legislators want to ensure that Minnesota students, and those who pay hundreds of millions in taxes to support the U of M each year, are made a real priority. Tuition imbalance between in-state and non-resident students is an important issue for Woodbury families, many of whom send their children or attend graduate school at the U of M. We will continue to work with the U of M, which has constitutional autonomy over its tuition, next year. 

Additionally, to make certain that the dream of achieving a higher education is accessible to every Minnesota student, regardless of income or zip code, funding was increased for our State Grant Program. Making higher education more affordable for low- and middle-income families is important, and I am pleased the legislature made this program a priority. 

To address the concerns of students and employers in our state, the legislature also enacted a number of key higher education reforms. For instance, in an effort to cut debt and help students complete a degree more quickly, MnSCU students with an associate degree will be able to more easily transfer credits into a bachelor’s degree program within that field of study. We also made sure that MnSCU students who tested college ready in a subject area on their American College Testing (ACT) college entrance exam are not forced to take remedial non-credit courses. What’s more, to address our state’s teacher shortage, particularly in Greater Minnesota, our budget includes loan forgiveness programs for educators teaching in areas lacking instructors. 

Finally, to address the growing problem of sexual violence on campus, the legislature implemented a new uniform statewide sexual assault policy on college campuses. Working with a number of key stakeholders including the U of M, MnSCU, private colleges and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Violence, this new law will help protect, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault on campus, making a significant impact on the safety of students and college employees. Sending our kids off to college can be overwhelming, and this new policy is a comfort to me as a parent and common sense to me as a policymaker. 

In closing, this year’s bipartisan higher education budget takes large strides to give Minnesotans greater access to higher education, easing financial roadblocks and implementing key reforms. 

I’d like to wish all of the students returning to or entering college this month a happy school year! You are the future of our state, and I wish you the best as you work toward attaining your degree and furthering your education.

Kelly Fenton represents Minnesota House of Representatives District 53B. She can be reached at 651-296-1147 or rep.kelly.fenton@house.mn.