Minn. legislator proposes two years of free college at state schools

Kelton Holsen, Staff Writer

new bill in the Minnesota Senate, proposed by Minneapolis Senator Kari Dziedzic, would make college tuition-free for the first two years of study at any community college or state school in Minnesota, according to a new report from “Diverse Education.” The bill would cover tuition as well as fees and the cost of textbooks.

If the bill is signed into law, Minnesota would join 11 other states that have enacted so-called “promise” plans that grant free tuition for at least two years of college. According to CNBC, the group of states that have enacted “promise” plans is very geographically diverse, with members including New York, Tennessee and Nevada.

The measure comes on the heels of promises by Governor Tim Walz that affordable college for Minnesota students would be among his priorities during his term. “We’ve laid out a vision for Minnesota to have the best qualified workforce, to have the healthiest workforce and to have an infrastructure that’s unparalleled,” said Walz in a statement to the “Minnesota Sun.”

Although Augsburg is a private university, this measure could still affect the school due to its impact on Augsburg’s relatively high transfer population — about 45 percent of Augsburg students are transfer students. Augsburg also has a program in place called the Auggie Plan, which helps students at two-year community colleges choose classes that they will be able to transfer into an Augsburg degree. The Auggie Plan also ensures that transfer students on the plan pay similar prices for tuition during their time at Augsburg as they would have at a two-year institution.

According to Judy Johnson, director of the Augsburg Plan, free tuition is a great help for struggling students, but it does not address all of the problems faced by students who transfer from community colleges. “The community colleges in the urban areas tend to be large institutions … It is easy to get lost in the system, access advisers and manage course selection on your own,” said Johnson. “[We] see students taking the wrong classes for their intended major, taking unnecessary courses, going part-time due to poor course sequence planning, etc. … If a student did not take the right courses at the community college, then they may have to stay at the four-year [college] for three or even four years to finish their degree … The financial benefits of free tuition are wiped out if a student has to complete three to four years of coursework at the four-year institution.”

According to Johnson, the Auggie Plan helps to prevent poor course planning by helping students choose courses that they will be able to transfer into their studies at Augsburg. “With the introduction of free tuition, full-time students could access the Auggie Plan to help stay on track and efficiently move through the community college program. They would be on track to complete their degree in two years once they transfer and have significant scholarship support,” said Johnson. “This program has been carefully designed to address the needs of low-income community college students who plan to attend Augsburg down the road. We are already in place to serve students if free tuition becomes a reality.”

One concern Johnson raises is that the grants that Augsburg uses to make the Auggie Plan more affordable could disappear if a free tuition plan is put into place. “If we [lose the MN Grant] it will be difficult to support the 2+2 Scholarship as financially viable for the college,” she said. “Also, many students receive the MN Grant who began their studies with us as freshmen. They, too, would be affected financially.”

According to a report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Minnesota students from low-income communities already receive free college education. Approximately 28 percent of Minnesota students currently receive “combined federal Pell Grant and Minnesota State Grant aid that [is] equal to or greater than the average tuition and fees charged,” according to the report. Therefore, the report notes, a free college program in Minnesota would be more aimed at increasing the affordability of college for students whose family income falls into the middle range.

The report also noted that the cost of a free tuition program would come out to somewhere between $56 million and $138 million in addition to the cost of current state grant programs, which cost approximately $198 million dollars per year.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 22, 2019 issue.