North Star Promise: A few tweaks to consider

Kelly Asche

January 2024

The last legislative session produced an interesting program to help make post-secondary education more affordable for low-income students – the North Star Promise. From the Minnesota Office of Higher Education:

“Beginning in fall 2024, the North Star Promise (NSP) Scholarship program will create a tuition and fee-free pathway to higher education for eligible Minnesota residents at eligible institutions as a “last-dollar” program by covering the balance of tuition and fees remaining after other scholarships, grants, stipends and tuition waivers have been applied.

By making college accessible and affordable, NSP is intended to have a positive impact on multiple fronts:

  • Help stabilize enrollment at Minnesota public institutions of higher education;
  • Serve as an economic driver for Minnesota by educating qualified workers who are much needed to fill vacancies in the state’s labor force;
  • Create a viable higher education path for Minnesota residents who may have previously thought education was not a possibility for them.

We estimate this program will impact 15,000-20,000 students in the first academic year.[1]

There is some excitement across rural areas about this program’s potential to divert students that currently attend and graduate from out-of-state colleges to stay closer to home, especially within counties bordering North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa.

In November, we released a report exploring the paths taken by graduates of high schools in Southwest Minnesota. One of the factors identified leading students to work outside of Southwest was the location of their alma mater. And unfortunately, Southwest has a significant percentage of their high schoolers graduating from a college located outside of Minnesota.

Figure 1 shows that of the 2008 to 2019 high school graduates in that region that also graduated from a post-secondary institution, nearly 30% did so from a college in a border state: 19% in South Dakota, 6% in North Dakota, and 3% in Iowa. There is hope that the North Star Promise will keep more of these students in the state, and hopefully, in the region.

Figure 1: Of the 2008 to 2019 high school graduates in Southwest Minnesota that also graduated from a post-secondary institution, nearly 30% did so from a college located in South Dakota, North Dakota, or Iowa. Data: MN Office of Higher Education – SLEDS


Of course, with any new program there are going to be some concerns. The primary ones are:

  1. It may put rural areas with limited four-year institution options at a disadvantage.
  2. Without a work requirement post-graduation, there is little incentive for those students to stay in rural regions to work after graduation, as they maybe likely to take Minnesota’s investment elsewhere.
  3. We are doing little to attract students from surrounding states to Minnesota while those states are actively campaigning to attract our own students.


Disadvantage for rural regions

One consistent concern we have heard about North Star Promise is that it puts regions with limited college institutions at a disadvantage. For example, in southwest Minnesota (EDR 8, EDR 6W, EDR 6E) there is only one four-year college and only five two-year college institutions.

Right now, a fairly small percentage of high school graduates from Southwest attend and graduate from one of these institutions. Figure 2 shows that only 12% of high schoolers in our Southwest study graduated from a college located in the same region as the high school they attended. This isn’t because these colleges aren’t doing enough to recruit local students. Rather, it’s a reality of the limited number of colleges in the region. And this is typical of many rural regions across the state: most colleges are located in the state’s more metropolitan areas.

Figure 2: Only 12% of Southwest high schoolers attend and graduated from a college in Southwest. Data: MN Office of Higher Education – SLEDS


In Southwest Minnesota, there is also concern that North Star Promise will generate more interest and demand for four-year campuses. The hope is that in the future, more Southwest-region students who might have fallen into the “No college,” “Some college,” or “Graduated out of state” categories will instead fall into the “Graduated from a Southwest MN college” column. However, North Star Promise may take away the financial advantage that Southwest Minnesota’s two-year colleges have—they’re the cheaper option.



Work Requirements

Another concern is that the program puts no obligation on a recipient to stay and work in Minnesota after graduation. If the program is to “serve as an economic driver for Minnesota by educating qualified workers who are much needed to fill vacancies in the state’s labor force,”2 we might want to also create an obligation that those individuals stay and work in Minnesota.

One of the reasons job vacancies in rural areas along the western and southern border of the state are increasing is because of competition from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa. For college campuses located in communities along Minnesota’s border, there is concern that students will use North Star Promise to attend college, then leave after graduation to cross the border to work. Given the number of students in our study who left the Southwest region to work in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the state, this should be a concern for every region of Minnesota.



Attracting out-of-state students

Years before Minnesota developed North Star Promise, South Dakota created the “Build Dakota” program, which provides scholarships to students who graduate from a South Dakota college and work in the state for three years.  Now, in response to North Star Promise, North Dakota has started offering the same tuition and fee waiver for Minnesota students to go there.[2]

The biggest difference between the North Star Promise and the programs offered up by North Dakota and South Dakota is that they are offering these benefits to students outside of their own states. Right now, North Star Promise only offers these benefits to students who are from Minnesota. On the other hand, Build Dakota provides scholarships for students from any state, as long as they live and work in South Dakota for three years after graduating college. North Dakota’s benefits are specifically aimed at Minnesota because they know they get a large percentage of students from Minnesota.

If Minnesota is going to compete, especially our rural areas, Minnesota is going to have to get aggressive with providing benefits to individuals who are from outside of Minnesota, too.


Overall, the North Star Promise is a step in the right direction and with a few tweaks, could benefit rural Minnesota, too.