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Red Wing students will be able to attend Minnesota State College Southeast tuition-free — earning up to a two-year degree at the local college — thanks to a donation announced Thursday by school leaders.

The Red Wing College Promise program, which is a gift from the Jones Family Foundation, will cover all tuition and some expenses beyond what students are able to receive from financial aid. It's the latest move in a push at colleges across Minnesota to make higher education more affordable.

Minnesota State College Southeast President Marsha Danielson spoke at the college Thursday morning to announce the program along with representatives from the Jones Family Foundation and Frank Norton, the interim superintendent of the Red Wing School District. Students from Red Wing High School were also in attendance, and learned about the program for the first time.

"I'm definitely going to go to this place for my college education now because it's much more affordable," Camden Wittenberg, a senior at Red Wing High School, said. "I'd be one of the first in my family to go to college, so this is a really big opportunity for me."

Red Wing College Promise is available for students enrolled in any of the schools within Red Wing's public school district. Students from Red Wing High School, Tower View Alternative High School and 5RiversOnline are all eligible for the program as long as they have a 2.0 grade-point average or are a first-generation, low-income student. Students who are members of a historically underserved racial or ethnic group also qualify.

The program is a "last-dollar program," Danielson said, meaning students will first be assisted with filling out both the FAFSA and financial aid applications for Minnesota State College Southeast. Then the Red Wing College Promise will pay for any leftover expenses. Additionally, students will receive $500 per semester to help with the costs of textbooks and other supplies.

The average tuition for a full-time student at Minnesota State College Southeast is about $6,280 a year, but the cost can vary depending on what major or program a student selects. The school, which served about 2,600 students in 2021, also offers direct transfer opportunities into seven four-year colleges within the Minnesota State system.

Minnesota State College Southeast President Marsha Danielson speaks during a news conference Thursday announcing the new Red Wing College Promise program.
Minnesota State College Southeast President Marsha Danielson speaks during a news conference Thursday announcing the new Red Wing College Promise program.

Stacy Bengs, Provided by Minnesota State College Southeast

The Red Wing program is based on the Hormel Foundation Austin Assurance Scholarship, which offers students in Austin, Minn., the opportunity to attend Riverland Community College. Jones Family Foundation founder Scott Jones said that program inspired the foundation to invest in the Red Wing community in a similar way.

A program at Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, Minn., also covers two years of tuition for students from schools in that area. A local entrepreneur made a donation to launch that scholarship effort in 2018 and the county expanded it with federal COVID-19 relief funding.

Wittenberg said he thinks the opportunity for a scholarship to Minnesota State College Southeast will make his peers more inclined to go to college in the first place.

"As college becomes more affordable, especially for lower-income families, it's definitely going to be a higher prospect and goal for people to strive for," Wittenberg said.

Red Wing College Promise will also allow Red Wing Public Schools and Minnesota State College Southeast to provide additional support to their students. The college will create a new position — what Danielson calls a "navigator" — to help students who are a part of the program after they enroll.

Danielson said many students who drop out of college do so for reasons that go beyond academics, such as living expenses or other financial stresses. She said having an extra person there to support those students could make the difference for them in finishing their degrees.

"We're just thrilled to be in a community that will invest in its youth," Danielson said.