Pine County leaders have set the bar high for proving that in this Minnesota county, young people, education and jobs are top priorities.
After reviewing a proposal from Pine Technical and Community College, the county board of commissioners voted in June to use federal pandemic stimulus funding for student tuition and work training at the tech school.
The new Pine County College Initiative scholarship covers two years of tuition for students who have graduated or will graduate in 2020, 2021 and 2022 from Hinckley-Finlayson, East Central and Willow River high schools. Plus, each student will receive up to $1,000 for books, tools and supplies. Home-schooled students within those districts, as well as students in Pine County who attend a local private Christian school, are eligible to apply, too.
“Our vision is to help more students get the job skills they need and to graduate from college,” says Joe Mulford, president of Pine Tech. “Eastern-central Minnesota lags behind the state in higher education rates, and we’re concerned about that. Our young people are critical to our communities.”
Mulford says the county could have used the federal stimulus funding on other needs, such as roads or other infrastructure.
“We applaud county commissioners for thinking broadly,” he says. He estimated that nearly 450 students would be eligible in the county to apply for the scholarship.
Mulford notes, too, that Pine County is the only county in the state to offer resident high school seniors and recent graduates free tech school and college tuition for two years.
This is not the first collaboration with the county that Pine Tech has had. Recently, it offered a series of classes called Work Fast, where residents could enroll and earn industry accreditation in various jobs, such as machining, cybersecurity, emergency medical response or nursing assistant. County financial assistance made the program possible.
“Pine County opened the gate for people to find themselves,” Mulford says. More than 100 people participated in Work Fast. The funding approved in June by the county — 450,000 — covers both the scholarship program and funds for another Work Fast series, he adds.
Having a successful program like Work Fast served as impetus for the county to continue to look for ways to promote training and education.
“After the county got federal funding last year, they reengaged with us, and we started looking at a two-year project,” Mulford says. “We got excited about that — how we could be the only county in Minnesota, and maybe the Midwest, to offer free two-year tuition and doing something about rural jobs and economic development challenges?”
Mulford adds that scholarships help ease the challenges college students face as they juggle school and work. The tech school offers numerous scholarship opportunities, including scholarships from the Frandsen Family Foundation, which also offers two years of tuition coverage.
“We’ve found that students [on scholarships] get higher grades and graduate at a higher rate,” he says. “That’s maybe because students are not having to work so many hours to pay for college, and they can focus more on their learning.”
Another plus he sees for student financial assistance?
“Local scholarships also keep rural students and their energy in the county for a few more years, too,” he says. “They get involved in the community with other things, like coaching teams and helping at church.”
For more information about Pine Tech’s scholarships, visit the Pine Tech scholarship webpage.