Free college sounds great, but skeptics ask what's the cost?

Rainy River Community College
Rainy River Community College in International Falls.
Tom Weber / MPR News 2009

Billed as a way to get more low-income high-school graduates into good jobs, free-college proposals such as the one proposed recently in the Minnesota Senate have been met with skepticism in some higher education circles.

While zero tuition at two-year schools sounds enticing, some ask if it's really the best way to help more low-income students finish college and fill the state's workforce. They also note that money isn't the only barrier low-income students face pursuing a degree.

Free tuition "is sort of a blunt policy instrument," said David Weerts, a professor who studies higher-education finance at the University of Minnesota. "You end up having to invest more than you maybe need to."

State Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, has proposed that the state cover any tuition and fees — currently averaging $5,370 a year — at two-year schools not already covered by Minnesota's state grant program and by the federal Pell Grant, which are students' main sources of free financial aid.

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Stumpf says a more affordable community and technical college education would generate more skilled workers for Minnesota industry, especially in greater Minnesota, and may make higher ed more accessible to the state's immigrant and minority populations.

Some aren't sold on the idea, including DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who told reporters during a budget press conference Tuesday that he would not have proposed free two-year college.

State Sen. LeRoy Stumpf
State Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, the chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, May 5, 2014.
Tim Pugmire / MPR News

Stumpf said he got his idea from a similar initiative — the highly publicized Tennessee Promise program announced last year. That program was also the impetus for President Barack Obama's announcement this month that he wanted to make a two-year-college education tuition-free.

The proposals come as state and national leaders discuss the rising price of college and a perceived dearth of skilled employees in technical fields.

"There's a need to concentrate on more success coming out of two-year community colleges, because they need those workers," said Bryan Lindsley, executive director of the Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Workforce Innovation Network.

To qualify for Stumpf's program, students would have to attend a community or technical college in the summer or fall right after graduation from high school. To remain eligible, they'd have to meet their colleges' yet-to-be-determined academic performance standards.

The program would cover the first two years of education. Students could earn technical certificates and degrees, or earn a two-year associate's degree that would let them transfer to a university.

Stumpf says his proposal could cost between $100 million and $150 million over the next two years, but says those numbers are "a wild guess."

Calculations using state higher-education data suggest the base cost of the proposal would be $78 million to $106 million for that period, depending on how many college-bound students enrolled.

The program would benefit about 30 percent of the 85,000 students projected to study at MnSCU two-year colleges next year.

Each student would receive an average of $1,550 under Stumpf's bill.

What's hard to know is how many additional students would go to college who otherwise hadn't thought of it, or whether the program would lure many freshmen and sophomores away from universities — students who were going to college anyway. Those two groups would push up the cost of the program further.

Who would benefit most under free-tuition programs is a key concern among some advocates for low-income students.

Because of the way the Minnesota and Tennessee proposals are structured, the states first see how much money students already get from federal and state grants and then chip in the rest.

As a result, the neediest students would probably not receive anything more than they already get from state and federal financial aid.

About 42 percent of the eligible Minnesota students — those coming from a family of four earning up to $40,000 a year — already have tuition and fees covered by federal and state financial aid.

On the other end of the income spectrum, 37 percent of the eligible students — those from families with incomes of $80,000 a year or more — would get all of their tuition and fees covered, even though their incomes currently disqualify them from state or federal grant money.

"We definitely don't want to [spend] a whole bunch of money that doesn't [benefit] kids who need it the most," said Dane Smith, president of Growth and Justice, a St. Paul research and advocacy organization.

Critics of the Minnesota and Tennessee proposals also say covering only tuition and fees takes care of only part of the cost of college for those who don't live at home — in Minnesota's case, about a third. Other major expenses — such as books, room and board, transportation and child care — are left out. So many students still won't be able to afford college, they say.

That could change under the Obama administration's proposal. A U.S. Department of Education official said students whose tuition and fees were covered under the proposal could use their federal Pell Grants and state aid for books and living expenses.

Still, some skeptics say getting students into college won't help if they can't perform well in the classroom.

In a college sector where 25 to 30 percent of Minnesota students graduate in three years, Lindsley said, "there is a need to focus on increasing graduation rates first and foremost before increasing enrollment."

That's because many low-income students must still contend with socio-economic handicaps — such as family problems, parenting responsibilities and inadequate academic preparation — that free tuition can't fix, said Metropolitan State University professor Mark Misukanis, a former director of finance and research at the state Office of Higher Education.

"So they [might not] be successful once they get there," he said. "They may need to take remedial coursework. [It] might not get them to the award they're looking for."

Discussing options
Thulani Jwacu, left, a Power of You adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, counsels sophomore Vanessa Arteaga. The 21-year-old Arteaga of Crystal, Minn., is interested in continuing her liberal arts studies at Augsburg College or the University of Minnesota. Photograph taken on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.
Alex Friedrich / MPR News

But former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, executive director of the education advocacy group Generation Next, says that's no reason to shoot down free tuition.

He said such obstacles, "though tough, can be dealt with" if students have that cost covered, and receive academic and other support services during their studies.

Rybak pointed to the Power of You program, which in 2006 began covering tuition and fees to a limited number of graduates of Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools who enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and St. Paul College.

Rybak said the clear message of "free tuition" has drawn low-income students who otherwise thought college was unaffordable.

The program has dramatically increased the number of low-income and minority students from those schools who enroll at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, he said. And support services such as advising and tutoring have helped the program more than double graduation rates for its students.