Local leaders urge support for Obama’s free-tuition plan

Proponents say we must invest in the next generation of workers

Avelino Mills-Novoa, interim president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College (center), Minneapolis Mayor Betsey Hodges (at left) and Lauren Segal (at right).
Avelino Mills-Novoa, interim president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College (center), Minneapolis Mayor Betsey Hodges (at left) and Lauren Segal (at right).


The public must be more vocal in getting President Barack Obama’s tuition-free community college plan to become a reality, says Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) Interim President Avelino Mills-Novoa.

“The America’s College Promise proposal would create a new partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students,” says a White House fact sheet, “letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree…at no cost. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. If all states participate, an estimated nine million students could benefit.”

Mills-Novoa and local elected officials, nonprofit and business leaders, educators and others met with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez May 26 at MCTC to discuss President Obama’s proposal.

“We are working with the White House and Secretary Perez on meetings like this,” said Lauren Segal, president and CEO of Scholarship America, a national nonprofit, private-sector scholarship and educational support organization since 1958. She told the MSR afterwards, “Secretary Perez really wanted to hear what’s happening here in Minnesota and to help him be informed to move this agenda forward.”

In response to questions at a post-meeting press conference with local reporters, Perez told the MSR that the president’s plan is uniquely targeted to communities of color and is part of President Obama’s several educational initiatives introduced since taking office in 2009, including raising the maximum Pell Grant award and expanding education tax credits.

It is “the great equalizer” for making college affordable to low-income and middle-class families, said the labor secretary.

MCTC’s 2014-15 tuition and fees is $178.31 per credit — 76 percent of the students receive financial aid, and 56 percent are Pell Grant recipients. The school’s “Power of You” program covers tuition and fees for two years or up to 72 credits at MCTC or Saint Paul College through state and federal grants and private scholarships. Eligibility includes being a Minneapolis or St. Paul public, alternative or participating charter high school graduate, or graduating from 11 suburban schools. Eligibility also includes meeting the criteria for federal financial aid and a family gross income of no more than $75,000.

Perez noted that the Minnesota DFL Senate’s free two-year college tuition bill “is virtually identical to the president’s proposal.” However, the president’s plan isn’t universally supported by U.S. Congressional Republicans, mainly because they believe it is too costly, he said.

“The question is…can we afford to do it. The answer is…we can’t afford not to,” said Perez.

“This is about a communal investment. I think free tuition is the best thing since sliced bread,” stated Mills-Novoa, adding that America needs a new mindset in the way it sees education. “We’re making K-12 some kind of end point,” he pointed out. “We need to figure out how we can shift our mindset…to K-14.”

Interim Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Michael Goar agreed: “We want to make sure that our kids understand [that education] doesn’t stop at high school.” He supported the idea of every high school student enrolling in post-secondary courses while still in high school.

Attending a two-year college such as MCTC “is not a dead-end education,” argued Mills-Novoa. “We have to provide those opportunities to benefit from college courses in high school or to go to a post-secondary education,” especially to local communities of color.

“What choice do we have? Seventy-four percent of the jobs within three years that are going to be available will need some type of post-secondary education. If we don’t prepare our young people to step into those jobs, we all are going to suffer.”

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said that a post-secondary education is very important for the city’s up-and-coming “contributors and community builders. The goals I have are to have students’ imaginations match the employers’ reality,” she stated.

“We have a whole array of jobs that we know are going to come in the future…from firefighter to manufacturing, to technical skills [and] the traditional work,” Hodges said. “The earlier we can get it in middle schools and high schools to give kids an imagination for what they can do, the training and opportunities that are available for them is key.”

Hodges told the MSR that the free-tuition plan fits her Cradle to K plan she introduced earlier this year, which includes “continuous access to high-quality early childhood education programs and services.

“Cradle to K is a very important first step. [It is] making sure that a person has the maximum capacity to take advantage of every opportunity that comes at all those milestones in their lives, to make sure that all those opportunities are available for these students along the way…and we are doing everything possible…to make them ready.”

“This is about beginning a movement,” concluded the MCTC interim president on the free community college tuition plan. “I don’t think our senators and representatives will be able to solve this. The people will have to be the ones to demand [it].”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.