Higher education bill provides benefits and opportunities for Ridgewater students
WILLMAR - Praising the "historic" investment in higher education that was approved by the Minnesota Legislature, Ridgewater College President Dr. Doug Allen said the action "reverses a trend I've been troubled by for many, many years."
The $250 million higher education bill includes a freeze on student tuition, increased student grants, tax credits for businesses that provide paid internships, a state match of private donations for educational equipment and a "Dream Act" provision that gives undocumented students access to state college grants.
Details of the bill and how it will affect Ridgewater College were discussed Thursday by representatives of the college, local lawmakers and Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
The funding will increase grants and decrease debt for students attending Minnesota public colleges and universities, said Pogemiller.
Without the two-year tuition freeze - which is offset by increased funding to state colleges and universities - Allen said there would have been a nearly 3 percent tuition increase for Ridgewater students.
The new funding package, along with Ridgewater's $20 million scholarship campaign, enhances the affordability of a post-secondary education and makes it a good opportunity for new students or formers students to come back to school, said Allen. "There is no better time to go to college," he said, adding that 39 percent of Ridgewater students graduate without debt.
"We do have a gem here," said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, whose son attended Ridgewater College.
Voting for the higher education bill was a "real pleasure," said Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, because it stops the "slippage" of the last decade and helps the state "look toward the future."
Koenen was especially pleased with a $4,000 tax credit that's now available to Greater Minnesota businesses that provide paid internships to students.
That incentive could be especially helpful for employers and ag students who receive hands-on training with high-tech equipment during internships, said Kim Lippert, who chairs Ridgewater's Ag Department.
Koenen also said the Dream Act provision, which could affect an estimated 750 students, was an important part of the bill. "We're a state and nation of immigrants," he said.
Jeanette Oehlers, the school success coordinator for Willmar High School, said the Minnesota Dream Act presents an exciting opportunity for undocumented students who have lived here for years and have graduated from Minnesota high schools.
"It's so exciting," said Oehlers. "They have hope now. This is a dream come true for them."
About 10 percent of Ridgewater's enrollment is comprised of minority students, and that could increase because of the Dream Act.
Allen said the leveraged equipment investment aspect of the state package could be vital in helping Ridgewater expand its training capabilities. It provides a dollar-for-dollar state match for private contributions dedicated for the purchase of equipment.
Allen said he hopes private funds can be generated to build a greenhouse for the agriculture department and that state matching funds can be used to equip the facility, which would be used to train agronomy students.
Lippert said having a greenhouse to provide year-round training in best management agronomy practices will increase students' value to future employers. Nearly 70 percent of the ag department graduates get jobs in plant and soil science, she said.
The legislation also includes funding for salary increases for staff, ending a freeze that has lasted about four years.
Because colleges compete with the private sector for people who want to teach, Allen said the raises will help Ridgewater recruit and retain high-quality staff.
Allen did take issue with one part of the bill that requires colleges and universities to meet certain standards or risk having 5 percent of their funding withheld.
Allen questioned the Legislature's desire to "micromanage" schools that are already under the guidance and supervision of a board of trustees. "I didn't think we needed that extra layer," said Allen.
Pogemiller said the extra accountability was a "small managerial price to pay" for the $250 million investment in higher education.
While the new funding is significant, Pogemiller said Gov. Mark Dayton has indicated that this is a "down payment" on future higher education funding.