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Free college grant program proposed for Minnesota State schools to aid future workforce

John Runnigan attends Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls.

And like many collegians, he has gone into debt for the opportunity to better himself through higher education at the expense of things like his own place to live or a more reliable vehicle.

In written testimony to the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, he said, “This bill would help so many traditional and non-traditional students not worry about how to afford their upcoming bills or where their next meal comes from. This bill would allow many to graduate debt-free and graduate faster and get into the workforce faster.”

Sponsored by Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Mpls), HF4449, as amended, is “this bill.”

Held over Wednesday for possible omnibus bill inclusion, it would create a free college grant program to cover remaining tuition and fees for students enrolled at state colleges subject to a sliding scale based on reported family income. There is no Senate companion.

“The best educated workforce requires us to invest in college for all. We can make this a reality by investing in students who need the most,” Noor said.

The plan calls for a student’s recognized tuition and fees to be covered after deducting other gift aid and scholarships received, such as a Pell Grant, state grants and tuition waivers.

“This is intended to provide free college for students who are making less than $100,000 adjusted gross income for the family,” Noor said. “It also goes up to 50% for students whose family adjusted gross income is less than $125,000. … Many students have given up on higher education because of the crushing debt they have. By lending them a hand we can make that a reality and the best way to do that is to invest in them.”

Rep. Ginny Klevorn (DFL-Plymouth) likes that the proposal would expand prosperity prospects for students. “It’s a great opportunity to lift families and individuals into the middle class. … This will help ultimately strengthen our state’s economy.”

A fiscal note has been requested for the bill that was introduced two days ago, but Nicole Whelan, a research analyst at the Office of Higher Education, estimates an annual cost of roughly $35 million.

“A big driver of that is this bill is only available at our two-year colleges and MinnState system, which does keep the cost down significantly,” she said.

To that point, Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) questions the bill’s fairness when students at private schools or the University of Minnesota could not participate.

“They are different programs, but the obligation to MinnState is critical because many of our students in our districts across the state are usually enrolled in MinnState,” Noor said.

There would be no stipulations on grant recipients, such as attendance or continuing to make satisfactory progress toward graduation.

“It’s laudable that we want to provide for our workforce of the future,” said Rep. Tony Albright (R-Prior Lake). “While I can’t disagree with the desire for the state to promote the availability to encourage students to attend, I think there’s quite a different equation to make sure they are completing it and that they are completing it for purposes that do generate bona fide income sources that will be beneficial to the state going forward.”    

Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) reminded everyone the state already has a “phenomenal opportunity” for free college through the postsecondary enrollment options program that allows high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to take a class for both high school and college credit.

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