INFORUM: College administrators give Obama’s free-tuition proposal thumbs up

By Patrick Springer

College administrators gave a warm reception to President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide free tuition for community college students who meet an academic performance standard.

The proposal, yet to be outlined in detail, is modeled after a Tennessee tuition program. To take effect, it would require approval from Congress and states, so administrators were cautious about its prospects.

“We don’t have all the details,” said David L. Clark, interim president of Bismarck State College. “Obviously, Congress would need to support it. At the state level, our Legislature would need to support it as well.”

So far in North Dakota, Clark is unaware of any discussion of providing free tuition for qualifying two-year college students.

But the North Dakota Legislature is considering a recommendation to freeze tuition once again for two-year college students.

Enrollment at North Dakota’s two-year public colleges totals more than 10,000 at five campuses around the state.

That enrollment figure is expected to grow with North Dakota’s continuing population growth and workforce demands, said Clark and John Richman, president of North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

It’s nice to have the president’s recognition of the contributions two-year colleges provide to higher education and society, Richman said.

“I think it’s a great way to start the conversation,” he said. “It’s a long conversation,” he added, though he noted that multiple studies have documented the contributions of two-year colleges.

Tuition at NDSCS runs $4,438 a year.

In Minnesota, Senate DFL members last week proposed free two-year college tuition at about the same time Obama’s initiative surfaced.

“It’s a bit preliminary,” Peter Wielinski, vice president of student development services and marketing at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead said of Obama’s proposal.

“Of course we’re very excited about anything that removes barriers to higher education.”

There is growing national concern about rising college tuition and debt levels, Wielinski said.

“To me, it seems a very natural merging of those two concerns,” he said, adding that he is eager to learn more about the proposals by the president and Senate DFL caucus.

The Minnesota two-year college system has almost 200,000 students, including about 9,000 at the Moorhead campus, where tuition and fees are about $5,400 a year.

“We think we offer a very good route,” to continue at a four-year college or for a trade, Wielinski said.

Obama’s proposal reportedly would invest $60 billion over 10 years. More details could come from the president’s State of the Union address later this month.

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