State lawmakers and student leaders hailed a new proposal Wednesday that would make the first two years of tuition, fees and textbooks at Minnesota public colleges and universities free.

The bill's author, Sen. Kari Dziedzic, D-Minneapolis, and its supporters said they were unsure of its cost and suggested it's meant to start a key conversation about access to higher education. It is the second free-college legislation introduced this session, but it goes further than an earlier proposal in covering two years at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State system's seven universities as well as at community and technical colleges.

Advocates pointed to states that have seen encouraging early results with such programs, particularly Tennessee, where enrollment and graduation went up after the Republican-controlled state made community college free in 2015. LeadMN, an organization that advocates for students at two-year colleges, also released a report Wednesday arguing that Minnesota community college programs are far from affordable.

"Too many of our college students are realizing that the high cost of a college degree is pushing that American dream further and further out of reach," said Frankie Becerra, LeadMN's president and a student attending classes at both Century College and the University of Minnesota.

Supporters appealed directly to Gov. Tim Walz, who made college affordability a theme of his election campaign. But they said they have not spoken with him about how his budget proposal next week might address the issue.

Among competing demands Walz will weigh is a request for a major budget increase from the Minnesota State system, including for new College Promise and transfer grant programs that would make up to three years of college free for some students. Chancellor Devinder Malhotra called them "game-changers" Wednesday.

Dziedzic said a statewide, free-tuition program could cost anywhere from $56 million for the biennium if focused mainly on community and technical colleges to as much as $450 million to cover four years at any public institution. But, she said, "Having the conversation doesn't cost anything."

Supporters said Minnesota needs to dramatically increase its postsecondary enrollment to meet employer demand as the number of jobs requiring a college degree or certificate grows.

Becerra, the first in his family to go to college, said that for most of his higher education career, he has worked full time, most recently as a restaurant server. Often, he went hungry, he said.

Aurin Chowdhury, a University of Minnesota student, spoke of working more than 60 hours a week during summer breaks, having to choose between buying groceries and textbooks, and crowdfunding a tuition bill.

"With the passage of this legislation, our government will be unburdening hundreds of thousands of families and students," she said.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781