Free tuition plan faces criticism

A state Senator authored a bill to offer free tuition at some two-year community colleges.

Haley Hansen

In an effort to create a more diverse and educated workforce, the White House and the Minnesota Senate recently introduced similar proposals that would allow students to attend community college for two years tuition-free.

While it’s unclear how the bills would affect the University of Minnesota, some lawmakers say they’re crucial in filling voids in technical fields and providing better opportunities for low-income students.

The University has partnerships with seven community colleges across the state in which students who meet certain course requirements will gain automatic acceptance.

The cost of tuition at the University for Minnesota residents is $26,222 for two years, compared to nearly $10,700  at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

While President Eric Kaler said at a press conference last Tuesday that the Senate’s proposal could help some students, he said the four-year experience is still important in building relationships among peers and professors.

The proposals come at a time when the University is seeking about $1.3 billion for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 — one of the highest funding requests the school asked of the state Legislature.

“I think the state should support higher ed more broadly, and I think the ability to get those first two years out of the way is important,” Kaler said. “But we don’t want to limit our horizon to that level.”

The Minnesota bill would allow high school seniors to attend public, state, community or technical college at no cost after graduation. It’s largely based off a new program in Tennessee that offers tuition-free community college, said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, the author of the bill.

“The reason I’m interested in it is to help open up opportunities for those students who otherwise would not have that opportunity [to go to college],” Stumpf said.

Still, some lawmakers in Minnesota are concerned about the financial feasibility of implementing a similar program.

Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who graduated from a technical college in Minnesota, said he supports students going to technical and community institutions, but the cost of providing free tuition is challenging.

The bill currently doesn’t have a price tag or a source of funding.

“It’s a well-intended idea. I think the likelihood of passing in its current form is unlikely just because the amount of money that’s attached to it,” said Miller, the ranking minority member of the Senate’s higher education committee.

While he doubts the bill will pass, Miller said incentives for completing college, such as tax rebates or loan forgiveness, would be a good alternative to encourage students to pursue a college education.

On the national scale, Obama’s plan would cost nearly $60 billion over a decade. The federal government would cover 75 percent of the tuition cost for students, with state governments left responsible for the remaining funding. Students enrolled part-time with at least a 2.5 GPA would be eligible for the president’s proposed program.

Across the country

Similar initiatives are already in place in parts of the United States. Along with the Tennessee Promise program, Chicago will cover the costs of attending City Colleges of Chicago starting this fall for high school seniors with high enough test scores and GPAs.

Ted Lewis, vice president of academic affairs at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., said the program allows for industry jobs to be filled.

“If we don’t have a well-educated workforce, there’s absolutely no way that we’re going to be able to compete internationally to attract manufacturers to keep good jobs in the United States,” he said.

Lewis said enrollment rates are expected to rise, and the school will need to expand student services and hire more faculty to meet the demand.

Tennessee Promise executive director Mike Krause echoed Lewis’ emphasis on the need to fill job positions.

“The Tennessee Promise in our state is not a higher education initiative. It’s a jobs initiative,” he said. “This program is being put in place for economic development reasons and higher education is the vehicle.”

Jerry Faulkner, president of Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn., said the program has also increased high school
students’ awareness of the availability about higher education in the state.

Tennessee’s program is funded by the state lottery and requires students to fulfill eight hours of community service before each semester — a stipulation that Krause said helped it pass in the Legislature.

Closing the gap

State lawmakers hope the proposal will help close a prominent achievement gap in the state by providing higher education opportunities for low-income families.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who chairs the Senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, said while she supports the bill, it’s important that state funding goes toward assisting those who are least financially stable.

“The best return on our investment is to make sure that dollars go toward low-income students,” Bonoff said.

She also said she’d like to see measures taken to ensure retention, like providing incentives for completion.

Stumpf, the bill’s author, said he also thinks the program would benefit greater Minnesota, where he said college attendance rates are lower than in the metro area.

University of Minnesota global studies junior Colleen Harris received her associate’s degree from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She said the program could also be a stepping stone to a four-year degree, diminishing some of the financial gap among students.

Harris said getting her two-year degree would have been easier and less stressful financially if the program would’ve been available to her. She said she worked 40 hours per week while in community college to pay her tuition, but ultimately had to take out loans.

“Especially at the University of Minnesota, there’s this huge difference between people who come from families with money, and they don’t have to work and college is relatively stress-free and easy for them,” she said, “and then people who come from families like mine who do have to work on top of going to school.” 

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.