Free tuition bill debated at Capitol

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, holds up the classified section of a local newspaper to illustrate workforce shortages in Minnesota at the state Capitol on Tuesday. Stumpf authored a bill this session that would offer free tuition to certain high school students entering community and technical colleges in the state.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, holds up the classified section of a local newspaper to illustrate workforce shortages in Minnesota at the state Capitol on Tuesday. Stumpf authored a bill this session that would offer free tuition to certain high school students entering community and technical colleges in the state.

Sarah Lenz

A proposal to offer free tuition to some students entering community and technical colleges generated an hour of debate at a committee meeting at the state Capitol on Tuesday, as some lawmakers said it doesnâÄôt cover enough students who are in financial need. The bill aims to address shortages in skilled labor positions. Supporters of the legislation said at the meeting that it would grant high school graduates, along with GED holders, the opportunity to pursue an affordable education, while opponents said it should include more students who come from low-income families. If the legislation is approved before the session ends in May, the state would pay for the first two years of college for students entering qualifying degrees, including engineering and information science. âÄúMinnesota, even with its low unemployment, even with its high attendance of college, is destined for a severe worker shortage,âÄù said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, at the meeting. Stumpf, who authored the SenateâÄôs version of the bill, said the policy change would also provide mentorship to students, including personalized study plans and financial planning. He said that would ensure higher rates of success for students involved with the program. Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said on Tuesday she is uncertain the program would reach underserved students in Minnesota. âÄúIâÄôm afraid âĦ we are not reaching a new population of folks that havenâÄôt considered going to college but would be capable of attending,âÄù she said. The bill is modeled after a similar program in Tennessee, which offers a scholarship and mentorship program for students. They must maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service each term they are enrolled, while completing their associateâÄôs degree at one of more than 40 eligible institutions. StumpfâÄôs bill would require students to enroll in a minimum of 30 semester credits per year and up to 72 credits over a two-year period. They would also be required to maintain a college GPA of 2.5 and come from a family that makes no more than $125,000. More than 3,400 Minnesota students would qualify for the program in the first two years, according to data presented at the meeting. Kayley Schoonmaker, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association, testified at the hearing and discussed the burden of tuition costs. âÄúWe are thankful to the Legislature and the governor for recognizing the important role that our colleges play in MinnesotaâÄôs future and for prioritizing college affordability,âÄù she said to legislators. Meredith Fergus, who analyzes state grant data for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, presented the financial components of the bill. She said it is expected to cost over $24 million in the next biennium, and Stumpf estimated that another $2.7 million for the mentorship programming would add to its total costs. Fergus said the Tennessee program is helping some students attend two-year colleges for free when they otherwise might have applied for four-year institutions. Though the bill, which was introduced in January, wasnâÄôt voted on, it was laid over for possible inclusion in a larger higher education bill.