Higher education bill roundup

Here’s an outline of some of the major bills related to higher education introduced in the state Legislature this year.

by Logan Wroge

The 2015 legislative session reached its halfway mark last week.

Bills that propose policy changes needed to be approved by committees in both the Senate and the House on or before Friday.

After legislators reconvene from their spring break on April 7, they’ll focus on pieces of legislation that appropriate state dollars, including bills for transportation and higher education that are known as omnibus bills. Major bills of this sort must be acted on before April 24 in order to move forward in the legislative process.

Here are some bills legislators are mulling this session that could impact postsecondary institutions.

Veterinary loan forgiveness

What it will do: The legislation would appropriate $500,000 to large-animal veterinary students who plan to work in Minnesota’s rural and underserved areas post-graduation.

Why it’s important: In 2013, the average amount of student debt for a veterinary student was more than $162,000, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Loan Counseling

What it will do: This legislation would create a loan counseling program for borrowers who are at risk of defaulting on student loans. Participants would be counseled by a state nonprofit organization to learn about repayment options and how to create a manageable budget.

Why it’s important: Minnesota ranked fifth-highest in the nation for average student debt in 2013, according to the Project on Student Debt.

The bill has bipartisan support in both chambers, with many lawmakers saying debt is not an issue to be divided on.

Alzheimer’s Research

What it will do: This bill will establish a grant program for higher education institutions and other state organizations to research Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.

Why it’s important: Minnesota’s aging population is expected to significantly increase in the coming years. Alzheimer’s disease devastates families and puts a financial strain on the health care field. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts the disease will cost the U.S. $226 billion in 2015.

Along with bipartisan support, this legislation has quickly passed through multiple committees in both chambers which is a sign of high priority.

Tuition-free College

What it will do: Modeled after a recently created program in Tennessee, this bill would offer tuition-free college for Minnesota high school seniors who go on to two years of community or technical schooling.

Why it’s important: State lawmakers say there are workforce shortages in the state’s technical fields that require degrees from community or technical colleges.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who authored the bill, said it will get a hearing next week.

Changes to sexual assault policies

What it will do: This bill proposes broad changes to sexual assault policy for higher education institutions, including bolstering victims’ rights, creating anonymous reporting tools, providing faculty training and establishing investigation protocols between institutions and law enforcement agencies.

Why it’s important: A 2013 Boynton Health Service survey found that 17.6 percent of students at colleges and universities in Minnesota have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime.

“While I can never know for sure what [Gov. Mark Dayton] would do, I would certainly hope that this bipartisan, non-controversial bill to protect students and employees on college campuses from sexual assault will be signed,” said the bill’s chief author, Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, in an email.