Governor’s free tuition plan gets mixed reviews

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Perhaps Gov. Tim Pawlenty thinks he has a cure for senioritis. The Republican governor proposed Tuesday to grant two years of free tuition to high school students who graduate in the top 25 percent of their high school class.

Under the proposed program, an estimated 16,000 students would receive two years free at any state college or university. The free tuition could continue two additional years if the students majored in science, technology, engineering or math.

The program, dubbed ACHIEVE, would begin in fall 2007 if the Legislature adopts it. Any family with a gross income of $150,000 or less would be eligible, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

University professor Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, called the proposal “pretty generous,” but said he was concerned that the proposal did not include a way to fund the program.

“Any time a politician makes an attractive proposal without telling how to pay for it, you have to be skeptical,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said he could not think of any way the state would fund the program.

“I’m going to leave that up to the governor,” he said. “But the T-word comes to mind.”

Brian McClung, communication director for Pawlenty, said the program will be part of the governor’s 2007 budget proposal.

McClung said that when considering the billions of dollars the governor budgets for every two years, “$112 million is relatively modest.”

State Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, was skeptical of the proposal. He said that under Pawlenty, undergraduate tuition had increased 83 percent.

“He’s promising something that he didn’t even deliver when he had the chance,” Pogemiller said. “When he had the chance, he cut the University’s funding and raised tuition.”

Pawlenty made the proposal while the Legislature was not in session, so it cannot be addressed until fall. Pogemiller said he does not think it will be well received.

“It’s an election year gimmick to look for votes,” Pogemiller said.

Attorney General Mike Hatch, the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor, called this a case of “foxhole religion.”

“When the bullets start flying is when you start believing in religion, or in this case, education,” Hatch said.

Hatch said that over the years, governors always had protected education, which he said Pawlenty has failed to do.

The governor, in a statement released Tuesday, said the program would encourage students to continue to work hard in their final semester of high school.

“ACHIEVE will give Minnesota students a compelling incentive to study hard, and it rewards them with free college,” Pawlenty said in the statement.

University President Bob Bruininks said in a prepared statement that the University looks forward to working with the governor’s office to improve higher education.

“Finding ways to enhance access to higher education for Minnesota students is an admirable goal that the University of Minnesota embraces,” Bruininks’ statement said.

Max Page, president of the Minnesota Student Association, said tuition always is an important issue.

“Tuition will be a big concern for MSA this year,” Page said. “We’ll be fighting to keep a plan in the legislative budgeting process for reduced tuition.”

Pogemiller said he does not think the plan is feasible without knowing where the money would come from.

“It’s too little, too late,” he said.

Hatch agreed. He said the governor should try to reduce tuition overall.

“Don’t make it a lotto game,” Hatch said. “Don’t start up a lottery to decide who’s going to get a scholarship.”

— Jim Hammerand contributed to this report.

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