Free college? Some Minnesotans say it’s time, others say cost may be too high

Published 8:21 am Friday, February 15, 2019

By Peter Cox

MPR News/90.1 FM

A group of students and legislators are pushing for a debt-free college model in Minnesota that would help out lower- and middle-income families.

Email newsletter signup

They announced a bill that calls on the state of Minnesota to pay school costs for students with annual family incomes of $125,000 or less.

The grants would cover tuition, fees and course materials for two years at any state school, minus money from Pell or state grants or scholarships. Pell grant-eligible students would receive an extra $2,000 to cover additional expenses.

Frankie Becerra, 23, was in the group announcing the bill Wednesday as the president of LeadMN, which represents students at two-year colleges. He’s a student at Century College and the University of Minnesota, and works a minimum of 35 hours a week in order to pay for school.

He’s had some difficult conversations with his mother.

“It was a very sad experience to go through to hear your mother say ‘I’m sorry’ because she couldn’t pay $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year for me to go to college,” Becerra said.

State Sen. Kari Dziedzic co-sponsors the legislation. The Minneapolis Democrat said even if the bill doesn’t go far, it brings up an issue a lot of people deal with.

“Let’s have that conversation: What is best for students, families and taxpayers? What is the best amount that we should pay for higher ed?”

The bill does not have a cost attached, but Dziedzic said the figure could range from $56 million for a focused program to $450 million.

State Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, chair of the Higher Education Financing and Policy committee, said affordability frequently comes up.

“I think the bottom line on this is the promise or the idea of free college is great. I have a lot of respect for Sen. Dziedzic, but we also need to be really sensitive to the financial realities we’re facing,” Anderson said.

He said his committee is looking at proposals to cover textbook costs and freezing tuition.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education has studied taxpayer-paid college costs. A paper from the office released in December said that funds from these programs often flow to middle-income students rather than the lowest-income students. The report also said student success hinges on much more than having to pay less and the state’s financial commitment has to be sustained.

State Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said lawmakers should consider a looming shortage of workers.

“We need to make those investments if we want to continue enjoying the standard of living and the quality of life that we’ve had in the past,” Eken said.

Kayla Shelley, a junior at St. Cloud State University, said this is an issue she hears about from students as the Minnesota chair of Students United.

She’s also facing $30,000 in student debt now, which will grow before she graduates.

“It’s really intense because you want your first job out of school to be one that you’re excited about, that’s going to launch your career,” Shelley said. “But then have to think in this really practical sense of, if it doesn’t pay enough I’m absolutely screwed.”