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Free community college: two proposals, many viewpoints

Free community college: two proposals, many viewpoints

(THE MED CITY BEAT) - If one was to bring up the concept of free community college, let's say two weeks ago, it would have seemed a bit far-fetched.

But now two similar proposals, one from Pres. Barack Obama and the other from Democrats in the Minnesota Senate, seek to make community college free for students willing to work for it.

“America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we made high school the norm,” Pres. Obama said in a speech last week at Pellissippi State Community College. “Eventually the world caught on and the world caught up and that’s why we have to lead the world in education again.”

The President's proposal would cover roughly 9 million students and cost in the ballpark of $60 billion over the next decade. The offer of free tuition would extend to all students if they attend classes at least half time and maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or better.

The Minnesota Senate proposal is similar, but would only cover recent high school graduates. State lawmakers estimate it would cost in the range of $100 to $150 million over the next two years.

Proponents argue free tuition to a community or technical college would help prepare students for a changing economy. But critics say it would cost too much and could discourage students from pursuing an education at four-year universities.

"To single out one particular part of higher education system where they have free tuition to attract students, what does that do for the rest of the institutions?" asked state Rep. Bud Nornes, chair of the House Higher Education Finance Committee, accord to a report by MPR News. "There are negative things that could happen when we try to do something good."

Photo: Leslie McClellon

Photo: Leslie McClellon

Rochester Community and Technical College President Leslie McClellon said she's still waiting to hear more details about both proposals, but likes the concept of making community college more affordable for students. 

"Many people may not understand the value of a community or technical college and what it can do for them," McClellon said in an interview with the Med City Beat. "Students can get a good learning experience, then go on to earn a livable wage, pursue a four-year degree or start their own business."

For now, both proposals are just that: proposals. And with opposition from Republicans in Congress and the state Legislature, it may be years before either plan is put into action. Still, they serve as a launching pad for future discussion and debate.

"Having this knowledge now, and being able to see this in progress over the next few years, gives us an opportunity to plan accordingly," said McClellon. "It allows us to stay in touch with [state] legislators, watch what happens at the federal level and make adjustments."

(Cover photo: Jack Amick / Creative Commons)

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