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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — President Barack Obama is slated to speak this week at the commencement ceremony of a South Dakota technical school just months after he unveiled a proposal to make two years of community or technical college education "as free and universal as high school."
While the president's $60 billion initiative has not gained traction in Washington, South Dakota has begun its own effort, in partnership with a wealthy state businessman, to funnel more students into schools that can teach them the technical skills employers increasingly demand.
Through the Build Dakota Scholarship Program, the state's four public technical schools began taking applications for free college rides in February. So far, at least 260 of the more than 900 applicants have been awarded a financial aid package that includes free tuition, books and any materials required by their degree.
"Helping students with their financial costs and financial burdens to get back to school is a key piece," said Mike Cartney, president of Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, where Obama will speak Friday. "Probably one of the biggest obstacles to getting a higher education it's the cost"
Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford kicked in a $25 million donation to help fund the program, and the amount is being matched by the state. Students interested in pursuing a degree in eight "high-need" areas — including automotive, building trades and construction, medical lab technicians and welding — are eligible to apply for a scholarship. In return, students agree to work in their chosen field for three years in South Dakota upon graduation.
Of the nearly 320 scholarship applications Lake Area has received, about 70 people received one and at least 38 have committed to starting school in the fall. One of those people is 40-year-old Teresa Peterson, who will pursue a licensed practical nurse degree.
The scholarship will allow the mother of three from Garrison, North Dakota, to take classes at Lake Area at the same time that her teenage daughter will start college in Bismarck. The scholarships are open to incoming out-of-state college students.
"As I get older and my kids are going off to school, I just got this nagging feeling that I never went to school," Peterson said. "I started a family first and started working and I never got the opportunity to go to school and have a degree. My daughter has received $24,000 in scholarships herself but that only pays for one year, so it will be very nice only having to worry about one of us in school."
The program won't be a workforce panacea, though: Only 300 scholarships will be granted in the first five years — exhausting half of the $50 million investment — and in 2020, an endowment would shift to fund about 50 scholarships annually.
The state is also encouraging high schools to coordinate their curricula with the four technical schools to allow students to earn dual credit.
The White House in January estimated that 9 million students could eventually participate in the president's plan and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year if they attend full-time and meet certain academic requirements. But the idea — and its $60 billion federal price tag — received a cold reception from a Republican Congress that is showing little appetite for big new spending programs.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who will also be in Watertown Friday, said Obama's decision to address Lake Area's graduates underscores the school's exceptional work. Lake Area has been a top 10 national finalist for the prestigious Aspen Institute Community College Excellence Award three consecutive times and has one of the highest graduation and placement rates in the nation.
"(Obama) wanted to come to South Dakota, of course, because he hadn't been here since he's been elected and what better place to come than an outstanding school," Daugaard said.