Free 2-year college plan to launch in Minnesota

Hennepin Technical College
Photo Credit: Hennepin Technical College

Governor Mark Dayton failed in his push for $342 million to establish free PreK for all Minnesota 4-year olds, although he succeeded in negotiating for a total of $104 million to expand his tax-funded PreK scholarship program.

Dayton and Democrats achieved another state education victory by establishing a new $8.5 million program called the “MnScu College Occupational Scholarship” which will pay for tuition and fees for 1,600 recent Minnesota high school graduates or GED recipients.

The scholarships are a scaled back version of the original legislation sponsored by Senator LeRoy Stumpf, D- Plummer, which would have provided free two-year degrees for all Minnesota students.  Governor Dayton had stated early support for the idea and it had sponsorship from Higher Education committee chair Senator Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, as well as a large group of House Democrats.  Lacking any Republican support, they settled for a pilot plan in hopes of expanded coverage down the road.

Stumpf’s original proposal had a price tag of $100-$150 million for two years of funding.  Part of his intent was a belief that spiraling higher education costs can be contained by providing free community college, “It’s important to try to control the cost and accountability,” he told the Senate Information Services in March.

Recent high school graduates whose families make as much as $90,000 per year will qualify for two years of taxpayer-funded community or technical college.  This program is in addition to existing federal and state grants that pay for college for lower-income students.  President Obama proposed universal community college in January as a program to be funded by federal and state tax dollars.

Legislators have cited the need for skilled workers in areas like construction, but the scholarship covers those seeking degrees in a broad range of areas including the arts, communications, and human services.  While the program targets recent high school graduates, it also allows for AmeriCorps volunteers to qualify, if they spent their time volunteering for the government for 12-24 months after high school.  The program will be in place by July 1, 2016 and will require reporting based on race, ethnicity, and gender as well as employment outcomes in order to determine how it’s working

Stumpf told the Star Tribune after the Higher Education bill’s passage, “I really think that if we have any strands of success with this, we come back and we try the full-blown program.”  If  legislators continue to pursue both universal PreK and community college, Minnesota taxpayers be funding three more years of a public education.