August 2019

Decisions lawmakers reached in St. Paul earlier this year will result in more help for college students this fall. Legislators and Gov. Tim Walz agreed on a $18.2 million increase in funding over two years for the Minnesota State Grant program, which provides need-based aid to more than 80,000 Minnesota students.

Consider the impact at just one institution: at Bethel University 784 students will receive additional funds. Jeff Olson, director of financial aid, said that the average increase for those students will be $380. Noting how hard it can be for students to save additional funds over the summer while working lower-wage jobs, he recalled an experience of student starting to cry when talking about the difference that a few hundred dollars can make. “That goes a long way from a student perspective,” Olson said.

Bethel is also seeing 24 students became newly eligible for State Grant awards because of the decisions policymakers reached this spring. That’s definitely welcome news for the students and their families, Olson said. These students are not eligible for the federal Pell Grant and for a family of four with two parents would have family incomes in the range of $60,000 to $90,000. “Those are families that the federal government is not helping,” Olson said. “It is up to the school and to a degree the state and those families to find a way to pay for college. Many of those families don’t have resources in the bank to help their kids go to college, so anything the state can do to help these families is really appreciated.”

Most Minnesota students who receive State Grant awards attend public institutions, but many attend private nonprofit colleges as well. Olson said that there’s an untrue stereotype that students at private nonprofit colleges are generally wealthy and do not need help paying for college. He noted how at Bethel, for example, 33 percent of students are from low- to middle income families who qualify for State Grant awards. “We could not enroll those students without the help of the Minnesota State Grant and the federal Pell Grant,” he said. “The idea that there is this partnership with the state of Minnesota, it is so important.”

Along with the new funds that policymakers put in the program through the higher education legislation that was passed this year, an existing surplus in the program budget was retained that is being put to use to help increase State Grant spending over the next two years. In addition, State Grant awards are being adjusted somewhat to lower how much is expected from families and to increase what is assumed about student living costs.

The vast majority of the money the state spends on higher education goes to the two public systems, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State, and that was true in the recently passed higher education legislation as well. In contrast, the State Grant program helps students regardless of whether they attend public institutions or private nonprofit colleges — that means it helps students choose the institution that best supports their needs.

Hundreds of students from private colleges and their supporters got involved in speaking up for increasing State Grant awards this last session, through visits to the Capitol, testimony at hearings and notes to legislators.

On the federal front, the maximum award given out to students from lower-income families through the Pell Grant program has increased $100. There’s discussion in Washington, D.C. about possible additional improvements to the Pell Grant program, but that will have to wait for agreement and action through the budget process.

By John Manning