March 2011 Legislative Update
Despite the size of the state's budget deficit, legislators have approved plans for higher education funding that prioritize the Minnesota State Grant program. This critical source of need-based aid for about one in four college students would get increased funds under the House and Senate budget proposals.
The more than 100 students who came to the Capitol this morning to speak up for the program shared their appreciation with legislators. The latest round of student advocates came from the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's University, Macalester College and St. Mary's University of Minnesota.
This academic year has seen increased demand for State Grant support, as more students return to school and financial need increased. That has required rationing of the program's funds, which meant that about 20,000 students lost grants and more than 80,000 saw their awards shrink in size.
Gov. Mark Dayton's budget protected the State Grant program, maintaining its base level appropriation of $144 million for the next biennium, which runs from July 2011 to June 2013. That was an important statement of support, given the sizable cuts his budget had to make elsewhere, including in funding for the public systems. But unfortunately, it would be inadequate to prevent a repeat of the rationing of awards that we've seen this year.
That's why the proposals from the House and Senate that were passed this month are such welcome news. The House budget adds $27 million for the State Grant program, which will fully fund the program for the next two academic years. The Senate higher ed budget would add $7.2 million to the State Grant program.
It is impossible to predict how the differences between the administration and legislators will be addressed — on this aspect of higher education funding as well as the budget in general. But the advocacy of college students and other supporters for need-based aid has clearly helped ensure that State Grant funding has received the prioritization it deserves.
Triggered by a request sent out to members of the Legislative Action Network, several messages were sent to legislators in March that highlighted the value of the State Grant program. The emails came at a good time, as budget targets were being set. The case for need-based aid has also been made in person by the hundreds of students who came for their Day at the Capitol events. The last Day at the Capitol is coming up April 7, with students from Bethany Lutheran, Gustavus and St. Olaf.
The Pell Grant program continues to be at risk of cuts, as Congress struggles with a shortfall of more than $10 billion. The U.S. House has proposed cutting $5.7 billion from the program. The Senate favors the approach of the Obama administration to simplify the program and make cuts elsewhere.
The cost of the Pell Grant program has risen sharply due to rising enrollment as more low-income Americans have returned to college and qualified for the grants. 2007 increases in the maximum award also contribute to the program's spiraling costs.
For more information and to find out what you can do, visit Student Aid Alliance.
A March column on Huffington Post by Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg provides a clear explanation for what he notes is the most frequent question he receives — why does college costs so much. That's also the name of the new book he cites and that many others have been finding helpful in addressing such an important and complex topic. Anyone advocating for need-based financial aid for students may want to take note.