2-year college student finds natural role in advocating for all Minnesotans to attain higher education
John Runningen, a student at M State in Fergus Falls, recently testified in favor of a proposal to make college "free" to thousands of Minnesotans.
MOORHEAD — It may come naturally for John Runningen to serve as a voice for two-year college students in Minnesota, in large part because he’s living the experience.
Runningen, 22, the first to attend college in his family, is in his final year of studying history and political science at M State in Fergus Falls.
He’s also the newly-elected president of LeadMN, a statewide political advocacy group representing approximately 100,000 community and technical college students in every corner of the state.
The organization represents non-traditional students who might get only one chance at college, including students who are parents, veterans and first generation college students.
The focus is to make college affordable so everyone gets the chance to go.
“They're getting basically priced out of education because of the increases to tuition, year in and year out,” he said.
Runningen also serves as student senate president on campus, and it was that role that led him to advocacy work.
In his first two months with LeadMN, he drafted a letter to legislators in support of a $1 billion increase in higher education funding, traveled to the Minnesota Capitol to attend Gov. Tim Walz’s signing of a student debt relief bill and testified with the House Elections Committee on a bill pertaining to teens and voter pre-registration.
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Runningen testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee in favor of a proposed bill that would make college tuition “free” in Minnesota.
The proposal would cover the cost of tuition and fees at Minnesota public colleges and universities for students with a gross adjusted family income under $120,000.
About 60,000 Minnesotans would qualify, according to research estimates by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The total cost would be around $315 million per year.
“While the cost looks high to begin with, historically, investing in higher education has seen the most return to the state,” Runningen said.
Mike Dean, executive director of LeadMN, said Runningen helped organize a student rally that day to give students from all over the state the chance to talk with legislators.
“There are lots of organizations that have high-priced lobbyists… but John really elevates the voices that don't always have a voice,” Dean said.
Runningen is expected to advocate at the state level through February and travel to Washington, D.C. in March to advocate on the national level.
A 2019 graduate of Fergus Falls High School with limited financial resources, Runningen never thought higher education was an option for him until a high school teacher told him about community college and encouraged him to try.
Runningen filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, calling it “the hardest test” of his life.
The result was disheartening. He came up empty on financial aid because his stepdad’s land and farm equipment were used against him in the calculations, he said.
Runningen ended up taking out loans that first year, and used some bowling scholarship money he’d saved up from high school, which didn’t go very far.
Now, he’s hoping the free college tuition proposal gains traction, and has a goal of transferring to Minnesota State University Moorhead in a quest to become a high school social studies teacher.
In the meantime, he continues to focus on ways to advocate for fellow students, including ensuring every two-year college in Minnesota has a food pantry on campus, especially now that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP emergency funds allotted during the COVID-19 pandemic are ending.
LeadMN also offers $100 and $200 emergency grants for students dealing with unexpected financial burdens, such as car repairs and medical bills.
Dean said Runningen also played a big role in developing a new scholarship program for two-year college students in Minnesota.
In March, the LeadMN Free College program will launch, thanks to a $3.7 million contribution from the estates of Henry “Hank” P. Dembiczak and Warren H. Robens.
The donation will fund $6,000 scholarships for 25 students attending a community and technical college in Minnesota annually, Dean said.
Students can apply at LeadMN.org starting March 1 and applications will be due May 1, he said.