Minnesota College and Community Come Together to Help Students Take Free Classes

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A rural Minnesota college and community found a way to send all local high school graduates to a college tuition-free, increasing enrollment and setting a model for other higher education institutions in the state. could follow.

Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City has seen its enrollment increase 63% since fall 2016, from 1,035 students to 1,682 this fall, in part thanks to a community effort to send local children to school. tuition free. It started with a scholarship fund started by a local entrepreneur and expanded this year when Pine County officials invested nearly half a million dollars in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to increase the possibilities. college scholarships.

As a result, Pine County is now the only county in Minnesota where every high school graduate can attend college for free. Pine Technical and Community College’s growth comes as other colleges and universities in the Minnesota state system have seen their enrollment decline an average of 15% since 2016.

“These school districts and the businessmen and county commissioners, everyone just said we need to get more people involved in this economy to be more competitive,” said Joe Mulford, president of Pine Technical and Community College . “We are not a wealthy region. Our region has sort of come together around the goal of higher education and its necessity.”

Entrepreneur Dennis Frandsen created the master plan, establishing a scholarship funds in 2018, which covers two years of schooling at Pine Tech for graduates of five area high schools, three of them in Minnesota (Braham, Pine City and Rush City) and two in Wisconsin (Luck and Frederic).

Students must register full-time for the semester after graduating from high school and pursuing a specific trade – not a general associate’s degree in the arts – to qualify. The same criteria apply to the Pine County Stock Exchange Established this year, which also covers two years of schooling at Pine Tech for graduates of East Central, Harvest Christian, Hinckley-Finlayson and Willow River high schools.

Both funds offer last dollar scholarships, which means they cover tuition and fees not covered by federal and state student scholarships. Eligible students can also receive up to $ 1,000 for books, tools and supplies.

A third last dollar scholarship at Pine Tech, created by an undisclosed family foundation, covers one year of tuition for graduates of 11 area high schools who have qualified for free and discounted meal programs.

“We have a lot of good people here in our riding. For some of them the barrier to post-secondary education has been, where are we going to get the money?” Pine County Commissioner Steve Hallan said. “It seemed inaccessible to families.”

Luke Chatman, 18, was relieved to learn he could go to college for free. Chatman, who studies cybersecurity at Pine Tech, is among the county’s earliest scholarship recipients.

“It definitely takes a lot of the debt off my mom and me,” he said.

Grace Nelson, who grew up working on her family’s dairy farm, had no plans to go to college, but said the county scholarship and the attraction of Pine’s welding program Tech had made him change his mind.

“The fact that it’s free has made it a much greater possibility and need than ever before,” said Nelson, 19.

About a quarter of Pine Tech students benefit from locally funded scholarships, Mulford said. Many of them are the first in their families to go to university.

Local families are increasingly seeing Pine Tech as an option now that they no longer have to worry about how to pay for tuition, Mulford said. And the community benefits from the fact that more students stay in town instead of leaving to go to college or work elsewhere.

Students volunteer in the community, become leaders in the church, and even help coach local school sports teams, among others.

A role model for others?

Pine Tech is on track to meet its enrollment goal of 2,500 students by 2027, Mulford said. He attributes the scholarship funds, expanding university programs and accelerating recruitment to the college’s rapid growth.

The college enrolled nearly 1,900 students in fall 2019, but lost a few hundred the following year in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It rebounded this fall with an enrollment increase of 9%, and administrators believe the school will see greater growth next year with the creation of the county stock exchange.

“I think we’ve shown that the lower the cost of a college, the more people will attend,” Mulford said.

Mulford, Hallan and Mike Dean, executive director of the LeadMN Community College Student Association, believe Pine Tech and its community have stumbled upon a college affordability solution that can be replicated elsewhere.

Especially, Dean said, since the Biden administration recently abandoned a federal proposal to make two years of community college tuition-free from its spending bill.

“I think it shows a political opportunity that can work statewide, i.e. bipartisan, that can really solve these registration issues,” Dean said of the County effort. Pine.

Hallan and Mulford are working together to find a way to make the county scholarship sustainable. The roughly $ 450,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds the county has invested in will cover two years of tuition for high school graduates in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Both are optimistic they will find funding to make the free college a permanent option for local graduates.

“I felt bad for years and years as we exported our best product, namely our students,” said Hallan. “We have raised a lot of great talent here and we would like to keep it.”


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