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Pioneer Editorial: Free tuition? But it is an election year

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Pioneer Editorial: Free tuition? But it is an election year
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The idea of offering Minnesotans two years free tuition at a public university sounds intriguing. Minnesota needs to prepare a 21st century workforce, and providing greater access to higher education can be an important part of that process.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday made such an offer, in which the state would pay for the first two years of college tuition -- after state and federal grants are applied -- for students who are in the top 25 percent of their graduating class or score about a certain level on a college entrance exam.

But the proposal also raises a lot of questions. At a time only months away from the fall election, the Republican governor is pitching a plan which will cost millions of dollars, when in the previous 3½ years, his administration has whacked higher education budgets and forced double-digit tuition increases on all public higher education students.

Estimating that 16,000 students could be eligible for the free-tuition program, the governor fails to say how the $112 million biennial cost will be funded, other than there should be enough room in a $30 billion state budget to squeeze it out -- in other words, at the expense of some other program which helps someone else.

And while it offers incentive to do well -- finish in the top quarter of your high school class and go to college free -- it also picks winners and losers. Often, the average student doesn't buckle down until college, and then excels. And with a special emphasis on students taking science and math, the program neglects the importance of other centers of learning, such as in music, the arts or teaching.

And, as it focuses in successful high school grads, the governor's proposal apparently does nothing for non-traditional students who cannot afford college right out of the secondary school setting, and must work several years to afford college. Or attend a year or so, and drop out, to resume when better able to afford it.

Some educators even question whether the program would send more students to college -- as the vast majority of the top achievers go anyway.

Still, policymakers should not be naysayers. The proposal deserves serious study, and may be molded into one that will actually work, especially if expanded to more degree programs and more inclusive to students who show a strong desire for success, not just finishing high school in a certain percentage group.

The bottom line, however, remains that regardless of who makes an offer -- Republican, DFL, or otherwise -- it's campaign season and all have a bill of goods for sale. It's up to us, the voters, to decide who can really deliver those goods.

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