Free tuition debate will reverberate into the future

By Roger Boughton

The airwaves have been filled with stories about Congress soon to debate free education at community colleges across the nation. The Minnesota State Legislature is about to bring to the table at the Capitol a debate on free tuition at Minnesota Community Colleges. It will be an interesting debate as states have gone down this road before. California had free tuition for residents at all institutions of higher education until 1969 when the model changed to a tuition based funding model with high fees. Today there are 11 institutions of higher education in the United States that offer free tuition.

They range from the College of the Ozarks to the five academies. Other than the five academies, the colleges that are free are all private institutions, other than the community colleges of Tennessee which will offer free tuition beginning in 2015.

Why free tuition? After World War II our country had a desperate need to place millions of young men returning to the country in a meaningful experience as well as thank them for a job well done. The GI Bill was introduced to pay their tuition, fees and other expenses. We were also in the middle of a transformation from an agriculture economy to an economy producing manufacturing goods, and we needed a skilled workforce. The second transformation came when Russia sent up Sputnik. The country identified the need for counselors and math and science teachers. The National Defense Act of 1959 was born, and there were programs that paid students to major at graduate school in one of the fields listed in the Act. Students coming out of Appalachia were favored. I am a product of that era in that I lived on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia. I received stipends to obtain a graduate degree when I was married with one child. I was certainly not able to complete a degree with a growing family and attend the University full time.

The third transformation is what we are presently going through at this point in time. We are moving from the manufacturing to the digital and information age, which requires new skills for the future. Rather than use the words of free education the language that we should be using is; building a skilled based workforce for the future, providing opportunity for our future workforce rather than a dead-end job or creating a workforce that has hope rather than despair.

I read an interesting quote from our President of the University of Minnesota. “We need higher aspirations than just community college for the citizens of Minnesota.” At a press conference, Dr. Eric Kaler called on lawmakers to approve nearly $130 million more for the U of M over the next two years. Dr. Kaler said, “I don’t think it’s wise for the state to only invest in two year programs …” I don’t think he was thinking about what was good for the state or its’ residents but what is good for the university. It is only through working together that we can create a higher education system that delivers quality education to all residents of Minnesota. We all have to be accountable for an education system that provides results that enhance the lives of the residents of the state.

A gentleman at coffee the other day commented that nothing is ever free in that someone is picking up the bill. He is absolutely correct. We spend billions on our military, space program and elections and never ask why? A skilled workforce at full employment is a country providing a better future for all citizens. The debate has started and will determine the future of Minnesota and the country for years to come.

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