A rural Minnesota college and its community have found a way to send every local high school graduate to college tuition-free, boosting enrollment and creating a model other state higher education institutions could follow.

Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City has seen its enrollment jump 63% since fall 2016, from 1,035 students to 1,682 this fall, thanks in part to a community-driven effort to send local kids to school tuition-free. It started with a scholarship fund launched by a local entrepreneur and expanded this year when Pine County officials invested nearly half a million dollars of federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to increase scholarship opportunities at the college.

As a result, Pine County is now the only county in Minnesota where every high school graduate can attend college free. Pine Technical and Community College's growth comes as other colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system have seen their enrollments decline an average of 15% since 2016.

"These school districts and the businesspeople and the county commissioners, everybody just said we've got to get more people engaged in this economy to be more competitive," said Pine Technical and Community College President Joe Mulford. "We are not a wealthy region. Our region has kind of come together around the purpose of higher ed and the need for it."

Entrepreneur Dennis Frandsen created the blueprint, establishing a scholarship fund in 2018 that covers two years of tuition at Pine Tech for graduates from five area high schools, three of them in Minnesota (Braham, Pine City and Rush City) and two in Wisconsin (Luck and Frederic).

Students must enroll full time the semester after they graduate high school and pursue a specific trade — not a general associate of arts degree — to qualify. The same criteria apply to the scholarship Pine County established this year, which also covers two years of tuition at Pine Tech for graduates from East Central High School, Harvest Christian School, Hinckley-Finlayson High School and Willow River Area School.

Both funds provide last-dollar scholarships, meaning they cover any remaining tuition and fees not covered by students' federal and state grant awards. Qualifying students can also receive up to $1,000 for books, tools and supplies.

A third last-dollar scholarship at Pine Tech, created by an undisclosed family foundation, covers a year of tuition for graduates from 11 area high schools who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch programs.

"We have a lot of good people here in our county. For some of them, the barrier to a postsecondary education has been, 'Where are we going to get the money?' " said Pine County Commissioner Steve Hallan. "It seemed unattainable for families."

Luke Chatman, 18, was relieved to learn he could go to college free. Chatman, who's studying cybersecurity at Pine Tech, is among the first recipients of the county scholarship.

"It definitely takes a lot of the debt portion off of my mother and me," he said.

Grace Nelson, who grew up working on her family's dairy farm, was not planning to go to college, but she said the county scholarship and the appeal of the Pine Tech's welding program changed her mind.

"The fact that it was free made it a lot more of a possibility and a lot more of a want than it had been before," said Nelson, 19.

About a quarter of Pine Tech students are benefiting from the locally funded scholarships, Mulford said. Many of them are the first in their family to go to college.

Local families are increasingly looking at Pine Tech as an option now that they do not have to worry about how to afford tuition, Mulford said. And the community is benefiting from having more students stay in town instead of leaving to attend college or work elsewhere.

The students are volunteering in the community, becoming leaders in church and even helping coach local school sports teams, among other things.

A model for others?

Pine Tech is on track to reach its enrollment goal of 2,500 students by 2027, Mulford said. He credits the scholarship funds, expanded academic programs and ramped up recruiting for the college's fast growth.

The college enrolled almost 1,900 students in fall 2019 but lost a few hundred the following year during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It rebounded this fall with a 9% enrollment increase, and administrators believe the school will see more growth next year with the creation of the county scholarship.

"I think that we've shown that the lower cost college is, the more people will participate in it," Mulford said.

Mulford, Hallan and Mike Dean, executive director of the community college student association LeadMN, believe Pine Tech and its community have stumbled upon a college affordability solution that can be replicated elsewhere.

Especially, Dean said, since the Biden administration recently dropped from its spending bill a federal proposal to make two years of community college tuition-free.

"I think it shows a policy opportunity that can work across the state, that is bipartisan, that can really address these enrollment issues," Dean said of the Pine County effort.

Hallan and Mulford are working together to figure out how to make the county scholarship sustainable. The roughly $450,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds the county invested in it will cover two years of tuition for 2021, 2022 and 2023 high school graduates.

The two are optimistic they will find funding to make free college a permanent option for local graduates.

"I felt bad for years and years as we have exported our best commodity, which is our students," Hallan said. "We've raised a lot of great talent here, and we'd like to keep it."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth