January 2021

With the 2021 Minnesota legislative session underway, the Minnesota Private College Council is lifting up students’ needs for increasing the funding for the State Grant program, which helps college students. We spoke with the president of the Private College Council, Paul Cerkvenik, who told us that with the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income Minnesota families, a significant increase in the State Grant is needed now more than ever.

Q: What is the State Grant program?

A: “The State Grant is a program helps low- and middle-income students and family afford higher education in Minnesota. More than two out of five Minnesota students going to college in the state receive these grants, which help students enrolled at both public and private nonprofit institutions. The program is administered by Office of Higher Education and is funded through appropriations from the general fund.”

Q: Why is it an important investment for Minnesota?

A: “The State Grant program helps close our state’s opportunity gaps and increase college completion. Both are essential. Minnesota has some of the biggest racial disparities in college completion, which hurts our communities and our economy. Our state goal is that 70 percent of Minnesotans should have a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025; that’s what’s needed in an economy that increasingly requires education past high school to secure jobs that provide family-sustaining wages.

The State Grant is the primary state higher education program that targets aid specifically to low- and middle- income college students. Removing financial barriers is key to increasing college completion. This is particularly important for students of color and Native American students, given that more than half of all Minnesota students of color and Native American students who attend college in the state receive a State Grant.”

Q: Who receives a State Grant and where do they attend college?

A: “Most college students who receive State Grant awards have family incomes at or below $40,000. The program also serves middle-income families with 30 percent of recipients coming from families with incomes between $40,000 and $80,000.

State Grant recipients attend colleges across the state, enrolled in certificate, 2-year, and 4-year programs, at both private and public colleges. About 64 percent  of the program’s funding goes to students attending public institutions, about 29 percent  goes to students at the 17 institutions that are part of the Minnesota Private College Council. About 7 percent goes to students at other nonprofit and for-profit institutions."

Q: Why should improving State Grant funding be a priority in 2021?

A: The pandemic’s toll on family finances is making college unaffordable for many low-income students, students of color and Native American students. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen lower levels of enrollment this fall. And there are signs that even fewer may start or return to college in 2021.

We cannot allow COVID-19 to prevent Minnesotans from earning the post-high school credentials they’ll need to succeed. Given the pandemic’s impact on family and student finances, the need for new investment in the State Grant program and college students has grown significantly.”

Q: How can lawmakers act now to improve the State Grant program?

A: “The State Grant program formula expects students receiving grants to be able to pay for 50 percent of their higher education costs. This is unrealistic and unaffordable, as research from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education has found. Students cannot meet these expectations through reasonable levels of work and borrowing. Our proposal would bring the student share down to 47 percent. This is just a first step in making the student share match the economic realities students face. More investment will be needed in future sessions.”

By Tom Lancaster