Free-tuition program deserves a chance to adapt and succeed.
A recent review of a scholarship program for St. Paul and Minneapolis students is prompting questions about whether the effort merits state funding -- or should continue at all. In a report released last month, Wilder Foundation researchers found that only about half of 357 students who enrolled in the first year remained in school.
Yet the other half who stayed put might not have had the opportunity without the scholarship. It's too soon to give up on the program and knock it out of contention for legislative help. Now in its third year, the Power of You has nearly 800 students and has doubled the college enrollment of low-income students of color. Based on that record, the program has shown that it can produce more graduates.
Power of You provides free tuition for city high school graduates who enroll at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, St. Paul College or Metropolitan State University. Program leaders visit elementary and secondary schools to encourage college attendance and provide academic support for students after they enroll.
Since it started in 2006, the scholarships have been financed by about $1.5 million in foundation and corporate support annually, but the schools are hoping to get permanent state funding. The average annual per student cost is $1,850. Most donors have committed to contributing for five years. That should be enough time to learn more about why some students have dropped out and make needed adjustments.
Wilder researchers found that of the 792 students entering the program in 2006 and 2007, nearly three-quarters were low-income and more than 65 percent were students of color -- underrepresented groups in post-secondary education. Only 8 percent of the students had earned a two-year degree or certificate after two years, but many are still in school and will take longer to graduate.
However, the statistics are not that much different for non-Power of You students who come from comparable backgrounds. To address those problems, the study recommends that more work be done in elementary and secondary school to better prepare students for college and align the curriculum with college needs. Wilder also found evidence that students with regular mentors do somewhat better in school.
Another Power of You benefit is the hope that it provides many urban youth. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who speaks to every Minneapolis ninth-grade class in the city, said that four years ago many teens rejected the idea of college as unaffordable. Now, he says, they get excited about the prospect because they know higher education is within reach.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) staff outlined $5.3 million in its budget request to continue and expand the program. But when paring down its budget request, the board of trustees dropped funds specifically targeted for the program. Certainly this week's news of a $5.2 billion state deficit doesn't make it easy to fund new programs. But consideration for Power of You funding should not fall completely off the table.
Increasing the number of college graduates is well worth the investment for Minnesota. Investing a few thousand dollars in our young people today can pay off in a better prepared Minnesota workforce in the future.