February 2019

How Minnesota helps low- and middle-income college students is getting some attention. College students have been speaking up about the State Grant program at the Capitol, legislators have been calling for new investment and Gov. Tim Walz gave it his attention in his proposed budget. While the program’s name isn’t very catchy, the impact is attention getting: one in four Minnesota college students rely on this support.

student Viridiana Martinez with presidents and legislator

“I know that support from the State Grant helps me stay in school and will help me graduate on time,” said Viridiana Martinez, a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas, at a hearing held by the Minnesota Senate’s higher education committee in late January. Martinez is a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas majoring in leadership and management.

“I want to thank you for funding the State Grant,” Martinez said. “I do not take it for granted. I am very dedicated to giving back to my community and I want you to know that I will pay it forward.”

At a House higher education committee meeting in February, Hamline University junior Aaisha Abdullahi was one of three students from private colleges who testified. A double major in psychology and exercise science, Abdullahi is active with several groups on campus as well as the Minnesota Association of Private College Students.

“As a first-generation student, attending college is an immense deal. Both my parents are immigrants from Ethiopia and did not get the chance to attend college, but worked hard every day to make sure I and my four brothers got the opportunity to receive the best education possible,” she said. “It is because of your investment in the Minnesota State Grant Program that I have the privilege to attend and afford an institution like Hamline University.”

Along with other students speaking up in testimony, by the end of February more than 100 students will have come to St. Paul to meet more with their legislators to talk about the State Grant program. And many more students are coming for these Days at the Capitol in March.

These conversations help legislators see the impact of the program and allow them to hear students’ stories. That was captured in a visit that a first-year Hamline University student had with State Sen. Carla Nelson in mid-February. As reported in The Oracle, the Hamline student newspaper, Sen. Nelson noted the importance of the program as well as how it encourages students to put down roots. “It’s our students that we plant, become the workers and leaders that drive our economies and our communities in the future.”

New investments proposed

Office of Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson Jr. with students

In late February Gov. Tim Walz proposed a state budget that included a $54.2 million investment in new State Grant funding. The proposal for a 14 percent increase over the program’s base funding is welcome news for college students.

In a Twitter forum in February, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan described the administration’s budget as focused “on investing in students, which is why we are investing . . . in the State Grant program, allowing students to choose the institution that best supports their needs and ambitions.” She also noted the program’s broad impact, including how under their proposal, State Grant awards combined with federal Pell grants cover the cost of tuition and fees for full-time students at Minnesota State colleges and universities for students from families making up to $45,000.

“Governor Walz is making college more affordable through his proposed investment in Minnesota college students,” said Mary Hinton, president, College of Saint Benedict, and chair, Minnesota Private College Council. “The positive impact will stretch across the state, benefitting middle- and lower-income students attending both public and private institutions, earning both bachelor’s and associate degrees.”

The administration’s State Grant proposal is important to addressing educational equity, said Paul Cerkvenik, Minnesota Private College Council president. Students of color, Native American students and lower-income students face greater barriers, he said, when it comes to earning college degrees. Cerkvenik noted that Minnesota can help make college more affordable for many who face the greatest financial barriers by increasing the size of State Grant awards and increasing the number of students receiving them. (Statements Hinton and Cerkvenik made after the budget proposal was released are available here.)

Legislation increasing State Grant funding has also been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Paul Anderson, chair of the Senate Higher Education and Policy committee — and a Concordia College graduate. Senate File 889 would make an even more sizable investment in the program than the administration’s proposal; introduction of the companion bill in the House is expected soon.

Background on the State Grant program and the Council’s proposed legislative request is available here.

By John Mannning