What free college tuition could look like in MN

In today’s article about free tuition, I made reference to a program that gives us a better idea of what a free-tuition program could look like here in Minnesota, and what kind of results it could achieve.

Since 2006, the “Power of You” program has covered tuition and fees for selected students attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) and Saint Paul College.

Leaders at those colleges say they’re really happy with the results, and former mayor R.T. Rybak – now executive director of Generation Next – called the program a “huge success.”

“I’m really happy the president went to Tennessee to see their [free-tuition] program,” he told me, “but the Power of You was first – and it’s working.”

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Originally open to graduates of Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools, it has expanded in the past few years to include other high schools. At MCTC, it now serves more than 450 students at an annual cost of about $500,000.

MCTC students must come from families making less than $75,000 a year, and are expected to enroll full time right out of high school. In addition to free tuition and fees, students receive a range of services to help them succeed. Funding comes from federal and state aid programs, as well as donations.

Skeptics say the neediest students wouldn’t benefit under free-tuition programs, because they already have that cost covered by federal and state aid.

But Kristine Snyder, MCTC’s dean of academic foundations, says her program still pulls in a lot of new, needy students.

A little extra help. (MPR / Alex Friedrich)

Many do already qualify for full coverage under existing federal and state aid programs, she said – but they just don’t realize it. They and their families have never been to college and so are unfamiliar with the complicated financial-aid application process. As a result, they don’t think to pursue college.

“All you hear is, ‘College is expensive,’” Snyder said. By contrast, the message of “free college” is easy to understand.

Rybak agreed.

“For about the last eight years I was mayor, I went to about every high school in the city, and did a forum on college graduation,” he said. “And before the Power of You, I would go in and there were always students who said, ‘Look, this isn’t about me. I’ll never get into college.’”

In later years, however, “every kid seemed to know about the Power of You,” he said.

The program showed mixed results in an early assessment by the Wilder Foundation, but it's showing progress.

According to a 2012 MCTC report – the most recent available – more than twice as many students from participating high schools enrolled at MCTC during the program’s first year as had the previous year.

And Power of You students have been significantly more likely than their peers to be low income, students of color and the first in their families to go to college.

Officials from both colleges say demand continues to far outstrip the number of slots available.

The program hasn’t solved the traditionally low graduation rates of community colleges, but it appears to have improved them.

When MCTC officials look at a broader measure of success – those who graduate along with those who transfer to other schools or are still studying – students in the program succeed at about the same rate as their peers.

But when considering graduation alone, students in the program appear to complete their studies at a higher rate than their peers .

Just over 20 percent of the group graduated within three years – more than double the rate of those who came from their high schools but didn’t enter in the program, and better than the overall campus average of about 16 percent.

Graduation data from Saint Paul College showed even more improvement.

To achieve such results, the Power of You doesn’t just give students money for college. The program offers them help with things such as tutoring, intensive advising, and help getting social services.

“Free tuition is the carrot,” Snyder said. “Intensive services … gets them to the finish line.”