Perez promotes free community college, paid leave policies

Mayor Betsy Hodges and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez at Minneapolis Community & Technical College on Tuesday. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez visited Minneapolis on Tuesday to encourage employers to implement paid-leave policies and drum up support for President Barack Obama’s proposal for free community college.

Perez met with leaders in government, education and the philanthropic community at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) in downtown Minneapolis to discuss Obama’s College Promise Proposal, which would provide two years of free tuition at the nation’s community colleges. The president unveiled the proposal in January, but it hasn’t gained any traction in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Perez said there’s a growing movement pushing to make higher education more affordable in the country.

If all of the states participated in the president’s plan, an estimated 9 million students could benefit from free tuition, according to a White House fact sheet on the program. A full-time community college student could save about $3,800 a year in tuition expenses.

“The benefits of a skilled workforce are priceless,” he said at a press briefing after the meeting with community leaders.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said the conversation focused on making sure communities are preparing the “workforce of the future.”

“One of the goals I have in the work I do is to have students’ imaginations match the employers’ reality,” she said, noting that a whole array of jobs will have significant openings in coming years. “But often students’ imaginations for themselves is limited early. The earlier we can get in — in middle school and high schools to give kids an imagination about what they can be and the training and the opportunities that are available to them — is key.”

MCTC interim president Avelino Mills-Novoa expressed strong support for offering free tuition to students.

“Free tuition is the best thing since sliced bread,” he said, adding that an education through grade 12 is not enough to prepare students for jobs that pay a living wage.

He said offering free education from preschool to two years of post-secondary would be ideal.

MCTC enrolls about 15,000 students annually at its campus.

DFL leaders in the Minnesota Senate also proposed a plan to offer free tuition at the state’s community and technical colleges earlier this year, but it faced strong resistance at the Capitol. 

Perez visited UCare, a nonprofit health plan based in Northeast Minneapolis, earlier in the day as part of his “Lead on Leave” tour across the country promoting paid leave policies for workers. UCare provides health insurance coverage and services to more than 500,000 members in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. 

Hodges said that discussion focused on “building the workplace of the future” where employees are allowed paid sick time so they don’t have to choose between their jobs and maintaining their health. 

Hodges and City Council leaders have also been promoting the importance of paid leave policies as part of a broader agenda for working families in the city.