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Proposal to offer free tuition at some Minnesota colleges under scrutiny

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Plans to offer free two-year courses to recent high school graduates at Minnesota's predominantly rural state colleges face opposition in the State Capitol.

The plan has been identified as one of the main priorities of Senate Democrats in this legislative session, aimed at giving taxpayer-funded courses to graduates provided they maintain a minimum GPA level and stay in school for the full two years.

The DFL hopes the plan will address the skills shortage affecting Greater Minnesota, encouraging qualified workers into local job markets, but MPR reports that it has been criticized by House Republicans as well as private universities and colleges.

Rep. Bud Nornes, of Fergus Falls, suggested at a house committee hearing that the plan could harm other colleges, saying: "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?"

"There are negative things that could happen when we try to do something good," Nornes added.

The DFL proposal is separate from a similar plan to offer free two-year community college courses revealed by President Barack Obama last week, which has also received pushback from Republicans in the national Senate.

DFL Sen. Leroy Stumpf told MPR that the cost of the free course proposal to Minnesotans could be in the range of $100 million and $150 million.

Closing the gap

The Pioneer Press reports that priorities identified by Democrats following the opening of the latest legislative session were tailored more towards Minnesotans living outside the metro area, after a few Twin Cities-intensive years that included the building of the light rail system and funding for the new Vikings stadium.

DFL Senate majority leader Tom Bakk told the newspaper that its college initiative, coupled with other proposals such as loan forgiveness for rural doctors and dentists, is designed to close the gap in the state.

"What we're noticing is how well the metropolitan area is doing," Bakk said. "Coming from rural Minnesota, everyone doesn't feel that."

Rep. Nornes concern about how the proposal could affect other colleges and universities comes in the week that the University of Minnesota requested an extra $130 million of public funding over the next two years, in exchange for a continued freeze in tuition fees.

KARE 11 reports that the freeze would save students around $2,300, but notes that lawmakers on both sides of the House have made it clear vocational and community colleges will be a priority this year.

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