Senator: Free college would fight worker shortages

Published 10:12 am Wednesday, April 8, 2015

ST. PAUL— Covering the cost of a two-year college education for students in vocational and technical programs would help fill worker shortages across Minnesota, a Democratic state senator told colleagues as the proposal got its first test.

The state could send about 3,500 qualified students into fields like manufacturing and agribusiness for about $24 million, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf told the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. That would better align the state’s workforce with business needs, the Plummer Democrat said, and enrollment and the cost to the state would likely increase in further years.

Prospects are murky for Stumpf’s bill. Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include money for the move in his budget proposal and it doesn’t have a hearing scheduled in the Republican House. It didn’t face any outright opposition at the Tuesday hearing, though legislators questioned some of its finer points.

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Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, found it “a bit concerning” that the move could leave students who need remedial courses footing the bill if they hit the program’s credit limit before graduating.

Interested students would have to have recently received a diploma or its equivalent and come from a family making $125,000 annually or less. And the funding would only kick in if other state and federal help didn’t cover the cost of a two-year degree.

Students in the program would need to keep up their grades and meet frequently with a mentor, Stumpf said, to talk class attendance and financial planning.

“I think that that will assure a much higher rate of success for these students,” Stumpf said.