Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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State's first free tuition deal could be just the start

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State education officials announced a new program, The Power of You, which will pay two years of tuition for Minneapolis and St. Paul students at three colleges in the community. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
Organizers hope a tuition scholarship proposal will boost the rates of graduating seniors who continue on to higher education. The Power of You program aims to build a stash of private funds to pay for two years of college tuition at three different schools. Organizers of the idea hope it launches a discussion for greater state support to expand access to college.

St. Paul, Minn. — Education, business and political leaders formally launched The Power of You program, which provides two years free tuition for St. Paul and Minneapolis high school graduates. More than 800 people turned out for the event Monday morning at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, one of three participating schools.

The program is open to all Minneapolis and St. Paul public high school students. But organizers see it as a way to bring more inner city minorities and low income students to college campuses.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) President Phil Davis says a 2004 Citizens League report triggered the idea. The report, he said, predicted that if nothing changed, only 5 percent of African American, Latino, and American Indian high school freshmen in Minnesota would have a bachelor's degree by the time they turned 25.

"We were startled by that," Davis said. "We said we've got to find a way to get more students, particularly students of color to engage participate in higher education. About half of the students in Minneapolis and St. Paul who graduate from high school do not go on to post-secondary education."

MCTC and St. Paul College are piloting The Power of You program this fall. Metropolitan State University in St. Paul is joining next year.

Among those who came to learn about the program Monday was Vanessa Barba, a senior at St. Paul's Humboldt High School. She's considering a career in cooking or bartending, but training is a costly prospect for her family. The concept of free tuition has changed her outlook on continuing her education.

"Since it's costing a lot of money I kind of put in on the side (and say), 'Maybe I won't go to that school because it costs so much,' but with this program it helps me to say I can go to that school," Barba said.

MCTC's Davis said he expects the program to help double the number of students entering his institution directly from high school in five years.

"I think the most important consideration isn't even the number, but whether we're capturing people's attention and changing attitudes about whether college is possible, and an understanding that it's also essential," Davis said.

Davis said college officials are already getting calls from people in disbelief that tuition could be paid for.

St. Paul College President Donovan Schwichtenberg said part of the goal of the program is to generate publicity. He said that will help reach students who are already eligible, but might not otherwise pursue state and federal grants to cover college costs.

"What I run into many times is students who say they want to go to college, but they believe the cost is so high they can't afford it," Schwichtenberg said. "Even though there are grants available for many low-income students. People, for whatever reason, have it in their mind that they can't afford it. I believe every student can afford to go to college."

Both MCTC and St. Paul College are well versed with the established national TRIO program, that helps students who are the first in their family to go to college. MCTC's Davis said the campuses are set up to support students who may have difficulty adjusting out of high school.

People, for whatever reason, have it in their mind that they can't afford it. I believe every student can afford to go to college.
- St. Paul College President Donovan Schwichtenberg

"We have developmental programming, we have counseling and advising services, we have academic programs that ensure that we can indeed make them ready," Davis said.

Larry McKenzie, a Patrick Henry High School boys basketball coach and director of Hospitality House, an urban youth ministry serving about 1,200 kids a year in north Minneapolis, sees the offer of free college tuition as a bridge to a better life for many of the families he works with.

"I can tell you the parents I'm in contact with, the students are excited about the prospect of opportunity to go and pursue higher education, particularly in those parents and students who might not have thought it was possible because of financial roadblocks," McKenzie said.

The program is possible because of initial grants totaling more than $450,000 from the Perlman Foundation, St. Paul Travelers and General Mills Foundation. The Minnesota Business Partnership and the City of Lakes Chamber of Commerce are also on board.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak signed on as fundraiser in the effort to bring in close to $3 million. Like the education leaders involved, Rybak sees the project as a seed for greater state support in public education.

"This state has succeeded because we've out-smarted people around the country," Rybak said. "We have a better-trained and better-educated workforce. And yet I'm really hard pressed to think whether this community has really shown the resolve to move that into the next generation. I think Power of You calls that question."

The Twin Cities program is patterned after the HOPE scholarship in Georgia, which uses state lottery money to pay tuition and books for high school students throughout the entire state.

Other states like Florida, Indiana and New Jersey offer similar programs. Georgia is considering scaling back its program because demand is outpacing resources. Still, Minnesota officials see a possible opening for a publicly financed K-14 system.

Metropolitan State University President Wilson Bradshaw says it's the path to take to keep the state competitive.

"We believe it's in the best interests of the state of Minnesota to have a highly skilled, well-educated work force," Bradshaw said. "A few decades ago that meant having a high school education. Increasingly that means having some post-secondary education."

Program administrators are taking applications for the Power of You program through June 1.

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