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Ababiy: Free college: everyone else is doing it

States across the country and in the Big Ten are instituting bold financial commitments for low income students. Why isn’t Minnesota?

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column about a recent report on financial aid that was to be presented at the Board of Regents February meeting. The report was informative, and I am glad our regents got to hear it, but my column took issue with it. I argued the report was too self-congratulatory and overlooked how bad tuition and financial aid are at the University of Minnesota.

Evidently other people feel that way about tuition and financial aid in Minnesota. Recently, Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, announced a new proposal to cover two years of college at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State system. I don’t know the specific economics of this proposal and neither does Dziedzic. What’s important is that supporters say the proposal is meant to start a key conversation about access to higher education, according to Star Tribune reporting.

Big ideas, like Dziedzic’s, are needed to make higher education more affordable and accessible in Minnesota. In the spirit of that proposal, I say the University or state of Minnesota needs to have a dedicated financial aid guarantee or program for its students. 

It’s a big idea, but it really isn’t that unique. Tons of states and universities have financial aid guarantees. In Washington, low-income students who register for the state’s College Bound program in 7th or 8th grade are almost guaranteed free tuition and fees at a public university when they graduate. Further east in New York, the state’s Excelsior Scholarship guarantees free tuition to low-income students. 

The idea is even taking root among universities in the Big Ten. In 2017, the University of Michigan created the Go Blue Guarantee. The Go Blue Guarantee promised all in-state students making under $65,000 a year (the state’s median family income), free tuition for four years. Michigan Regent Denise Ilitch told Michigan Live that “this will change lives forever.” 

It changed the University of Michigan for the better, too. Michigan is a relatively non-economically diverse school, with more wealthy students than low-income students. A New York Times project found that around 9.3 percent of its freshman class is from the top 1 percent, while approximately 66 percent of its students come from families that make over $110,000 a year. 

After the Go Blue Guarantee came into effect, applications from Michigan’s lowest income households surged by 24 percent. Its incoming freshman class had an increase of 6 percent in students from families making under $65,000, according to The Michigan Daily.

Even mighty University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign rolled out the Illinois Commitment after the Go Blue Guarantees’ success. All in-state students under its median family income will get free tuition and fees for four years, effective fall 2019.

The University of Minnesota does have the U Promise Scholarship, but its small amount — $4,000 at most. This means tuition is only free for very low-income families making $30,000 — half of Michigan’s and Illinois’ threshold. That isn’t good enough.

The University or State, perhaps in conjunction with each other, need a formal University commitment toward free tuition until a certain income threshold, like the state’s median income. Other schools are doing it and succeeding. Obviously, there are some problems with only covering tuition and not the full cost of attendance, but a formal program is a start.

Dziedzic was right. We need to have a conversation about access to college, and a promise from the state or the University to its students would be an excellent way to do so.

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