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This community college is giving two years of free tuition to local graduates

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden has withdrawn his plans to try to provide two years of college free for all Americans who qualify to bring down the price of his Build Back Better bill and win more support. But one rural community in Minnesota already provides free higher education. Pine County now guarantees two years of tuition to the local community college for all of its high school graduates. Joe Mulford is the president of Pine Technical and Community College and joins us now.

Mr. President, thanks for being with us.

JOE MULFORD: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How can the county afford this?

MULFORD: Pine County in the last couple of years has received federal stimulus dollars as part of the multiple stimulus packages that have gone out. In consideration how to apply those funds to the local community, they decided to invest those funds in young people through these scholarship programs.

SIMON: And this is opening college to young people who might otherwise not be able to afford it.

MULFORD: It is. Historically in our county, a lot of young people did not choose to attend higher education. And I think this gives them a perspective and an understanding that they are able to afford it.

SIMON: What are many young people studying?

MULFORD: We are historically a technical college. We have a lot of programs in the technical trades areas, things like automotive, nursing, cybersecurity, manufacturing programs like welding and machining.

SIMON: And can you tell us a little bit more about where you live, Pine County? What's it been like during COVID? Is assistance particularly welcome and even necessary there?

MULFORD: We're a small town in a very rural area, in and east central Minnesota, just about seven or eight miles off the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Throughout COVID, we've seen similar situations to many folks around the United States and internationally, that we've had disruptions in our K-12 systems. Our employers had some disruptions. But one of the critical issues that we're facing right now is a workforce shortage. And so I think, like a lot of areas, we're trying to get more people with the skills that are going to be able to support our employers in the region.

SIMON: So in a two-year community college, you're able to see that, aren't you? There are jobs that will be coming open in really a few months that some of your graduates are able to fill.

MULFORD: Yeah, the data that we share with these young people that are considering colleges, it's projected that 70% of the jobs in the future economy - and not in the near-future economy - are going to require some level of post-secondary education. That could be a shorter certificate. It could be a full two-year degree. So those are the types of programs that we have here at Pine, and we're excited to get more people in there with those skills and are going to earn those great wages when they're done.

SIMON: President Mulford, I'm sure you've thought about this. What do you do when the COVID relief aid runs out?

MULFORD: Our plan right now is to continue. And I think what's really been unique about our story with these scholarship programs is it's been a coming together as a community and a region to bring private resources along with these either federal or state resources and sewing all that together to be able to provide this opportunity for students.

SIMON: This must be very gratifying for you to see the school brimming with young talent.

MULFORD: Well, I tell people it's like having a chocolate factory, but every kid has a golden ticket. So it's been very exciting.

SIMON: (Laughter) Do you think Pine County might be on to something that the rest of the country can learn from?

MULFORD: I do think this model can be replicated. And I think it's really at the core about organizations, communities, both public and private, coming together and focusing on one core outcome, which is getting more people to get those skills that we know the workforce is going to need going forward. And I think it's doable. If we can do it here, I think people can do it anywhere.

SIMON: Joe Mulford, president of Pine Technical and Community College, Pine County, Minn., thanks so much for being with us.

MULFORD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.