It started out as an ambitious proposal: Make community college free.

Instead, Minnesota lawmakers settled on something markedly less expensive. Starting next year, the state will offer a free ride to an estimated 1,600 students in high-demand technical college programs as part of a two-year pilot project.

The program, with a price tag of $8.5 million, was included in the higher education bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday.

The details are still to be worked out, according to Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Higher Education. But basically, it’s designed to pay tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who enroll in job-skills training programs at public two-year colleges — which cost, on average, more than $5,300 a year.

The lead sponsor, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said his original goal was to encourage more students to enroll in two-year colleges by eliminating tuition. But the pilot project is a start, he said, and a way to steer students into the kinds of careers that are most in demand in outstate Minnesota, such as agriculture, manufacturing and computer science.

“All of those things are very, very hot right now, and nobody can get enough employees,” said Stumpf. “We push so hard as parents to get our children to have a four-year college degree. But now, in today’s economy, … it would be better for them to have skills training.”

With a cap on costs, about 1,600 students are expected to benefit from the pilot project, called the MnSCU College Occupational Scholarship. The scholarships will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis and students could end up on waiting lists if the money runs out.

‘Free’ is a powerful word

As a practical matter, Pogemiller said, very low-income students already can go to community college for free, because they qualify for federal and state grants to cover tuition and fees.

The new funds, he said, are likely to benefit students in families with somewhat higher incomes, up to a maximum of $90,000 a year.

But Stumpf said the “free” label could be an incentive for low-income students who simply assume that college is out of reach. “Even $5,000 is probably unachievable for many of them,” he said. “If something’s free, it’s like you don’t have that hesitation.”

In addition, the pilot program will assign mentors to work with participating students, to encourage them to stay in school and earn their degrees.

Pogemiller said that may be the most powerful part of the program. “All the research indicates that if you’re able to help some of these students through mentoring or just guidance, … you can help make them successful,” he said.

Results will be watched

State officials say they plan to study the results of the two-year pilot, to see if it succeeds in attracting new students and helping them complete their programs.

Stumpf, for one, hopes it’s just the beginning. “Right now, we have students around the country that are burdened down with over a trillion dollars in debt,” he said. “So I think it’s realistic that the government would help lower that cost and that burden.

“I really think that if we have any strands of success with this, we come back and we try the full-blown program,” he said. “And see if that blossoms like we think it will.”