Conference Commitee Testimony delivered by President John Runningen on May 3, 2023

Chair Fateh, Chair Pelowski, and members of the conference committee, my name is John Runningen and I am the president of LeadMN, the statewide student association for Minnesota’s 100,000 community and technical college students.

And on behalf of our students I want to thank the chairs, legislative leaders and the governor for making a bold investment in public higher education. For decades, Minnesota’s budget has been balanced on the backs of students with budget cuts and subsequent increases in tuition and fees. In fact tuition has almost tripled in the last 20 years, far outpacing inflation.

My journey begins in Fergus Falls, MN. I come from a farming family, where we made just enough to not receive SNAP, but not enough to buy groceries. College was never something that I believed was an option for someone like me because I wasn’t a straight A student and I didn’t come from a wealthy background. 

It felt like there was a barrier put in place before I could even make the choice of whether to attend college or not. When I enrolled at M-State I was told that this was the affordable option to get my degree. Instead I have had to borrow $6,000 dollars to attend community college and will need to borrow even more as I transfer onto MSU-Moorhead as I continue my degree to become a teacher. While $6,000 may not be a lot some people, this is a huge weight for me. The high cost of college has denied me the ability to move out, to get a vehicle, and to even get a loan to help my family out. 

We need a bold vision that brings students back who are questioning the value of higher education after years of skyrocketing tuition. In fact, Free College has increased enrollment by 32% at Tennessee technical colleges and 43% at Rhode Island community colleges.

Free College works because the simple message of free college will motivate more students to go to college in ways that traditional scholarship programs could only dream of. As a low income student, this message works with me and so many of my peers who have not entered college.

There is a robust body of evidence documenting the impacts of free-college programs around the country. This research not only shows the positive impacts on enrollment, equity, and workforce development, but also shows how free-college programs can promote FAFSA completion, reduce debt burdens, raise students’ K-12 performance outcomes, and more.  It is for these reasons that the free-college movement has swept the nation—not only as a popular political platform, but because free-college programs are backed by decades of rigorous evidence.

The Free College effort is the best way to address the challenges facing higher education right now. That is why the student leaders at the Minnesota State Universities, University of Minnesota, and Minnesota’s community and technical colleges are united in supporting the free college program that has been offered by the Senate. We are asking you to center your decision making around the needs of students, so that we can build a better future for Minnesota.