Thulani Jwacu understands the power of the word "free."

When he makes his pitch to low-income teenagers, he can see their eyes light up.

If they go to community college, he tells them, "you don't have to worry about paying for tuition."

That, he said, is when they start paying attention.

As an adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), Jwacu said he's thrilled that politicians are starting to talk about making community college free for all.

In practice, more than 30,000 community college students in Minnesota already qualify for enough government assistance to pay their tuition and fees in full, according to state data. In 2013, that meant about a third of the freshmen at those colleges essentially got their education "for free."

If the sticker price at Minnesota community colleges — about $5,400 a year — dropped to zero, advocates say, that would inspire even more people to get a college education.

But experts caution that free tuition isn't enough to guarantee success; and that such a change could end up doing more for well-off families than needier ones.

"The irony is that it would probably benefit middle- and upper-income people," said John (Chuck) Chalberg, a history teacher at Normandale Community College. "They're the ones that aren't getting the aid, and now they would."

The proposals, which were floated recently by the White House and Senate DFL leaders in Minnesota, are both designed to lower the barrier to college, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor who is credited with inspiring President Obama's plan, estimated to cost $6 billion a year.

"Yes, community college tuition is virtually free for very poor people right now," she acknowledged. But "middle-class [students] are dropping out of college at higher rates than ever before. So helping middle-class kids … is not a bad thing."

At the same time, she's skeptical that community colleges, which draw a disproportionate number of low-income students, would suddenly be flooded with the wealthy.

DFL Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, the sponsor of the free-tuition proposal in the Minnesota Senate, said his goal is to nudge students who think they can't afford college, especially in low-income and rural areas, to give it a try.

One option, he said, may be to include a cap on family income.

Gov. Mark Dayton did not include free community college tuition in his budget proposal this week. Instead, he withheld any recommendation on a funding increase for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities until March, in hopes that administrators and faculty leaders resolve a dispute over a strategic plan for the system, which includes state community colleges.

Since 2006, MCTC and St. Paul College have offered free tuition to high school graduates in Minneapolis and St. Paul through a program called Power of You, which is limited to families earning $75,000 or less. At first, both two-year colleges saw a surge in enrollment; but only 8 percent of those students had finished three years later, a 2009 Wilder Foundation study found.

As a result, the colleges began working even more intensively with those students, said Kristine Snyder, the dean in charge of the program at MCTC. "We make them come in three times a semester," she said. Advisers spend a lot of time coaching them on what they need to do to finish — or transfer — on time.

With all the extra attention, the graduation rate has crept up, to 13 percent. But more important, Snyder says, students are sticking with the program, and making progress toward their degrees.

Many of those students, she noted, wouldn't have attempted college in the past. "Everyone is worried because we need a skilled labor force," she said. To her, free tuition is a way to meet that need.

"I think all these kinds of conversations help to shift the narrative of who college is for, and why."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384