April 2013 newsletter
Some college freshmen possess only a faint idea of what their future major might be. Others are drawn to multiple subjects. And then there’s Kate Bjorklund of St. Olaf College.
As a high school student in Eden Prairie, Minn, Bjorklund volunteered on political campaigns and studied French for five years. That’s right, she doubled down as a senior, immersing herself in two sections of the language in a single academic year. So the idea of a double major in political science and French seemed like a fait accompli.
But then she realized a double major required coursework devoted almost exclusively to those subjects. That would minimize new intellectual pursuits, something Bjorklund hoped to pursue.
“I wasn’t totally sure what to do,” she said.
Charting a course
Luckily for Bjorklund, St. Olaf had just launched Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat, a free weekend event designed to help students chart their course. (Quo Vadis translates from Latin as “Where are you going?”)
Bjorklund signed up for the retreat, held at a nearby YMCA camp, and listened to professors, recent grads and upper classmen recount their personal journeys. One speaker, Professor David Booth, discussed the impact of how personal narratives — the story we tell others about ourselves — greatly influence future decisions.
In Bjorklund’s case, her personal narrative centered on a passion for electoral politics, French and a possible foreign service career. Booth invited the sophomores in attendance to question whether their personal narratives might be false or outdated.
“He planted the seed that it’s OK to love something in high school, but maybe that’s not what my future will be,” Bjorklund said.
Which is why Bjorklund, a soon-to-graduate senior who is in her second year of serving as a student advisor at the retreat, dropped French from her docket. That freed her up to enroll in classes on the Middle East, Islam and Russia. Those courses expanded her worldview, an oft-cited purpose of a liberal arts education.
Bjorklund said the retreat, now in its third year, played a key role in charting her future, which is now likely to focus on social justice issues.
The Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat is just one of the ways St. Olaf assists students. At its Piper Center for Vocation & Career, peer advisors (usually juniors and seniors) are the first people undergraduates encounter when seeking advice.
“They’re our front line,” said Branden Grimmett, director of the center. The idea, he says, is that students will be more comfortable talking to other students — at least initially.
A major decision
The college offers many other tools to help students choose a future path, including online resources. In the “Assessing & Exploring Majors” section of its Piper Center website, there’s a list of 10 statements describing how a student might be feeling about choosing a major. Click on a feeling (“I don’t know what I’m interested in,” for example) and one gets sent to a page offering more information.
“Anxiety around choosing a major is something most students have,” Grimmett said.
Generally, the choice of major doesn’t close other doors though. Grimmett points to a colorful circle chart created by a Williams College professor showing how the majors of 15,600 university graduates connected to their careers. The result: No single major led to a single field. Instead, every major led to multiple fields, creating a burst of possibilities for students.
“This kind of data can be reassuring to students,” Grimmett said. “While professional schools allow you to do a narrow path of things, a liberal arts education builds a base for continuing the ability to ask tough questions and problem solve regardless of expertise.”
Making time for reflection
Sherrie Fernandez-Williams is also a big believer in a vibrant liberal arts education. Years ago, she earned a master’s degree in writing at Hamline University. Today, she leads the university’s innovative Bridges Program.
“We know how busy college life is for people,” Fernandez-Williams said. “Students are engaged in activities on campus, classes, homework, research projects and many also work at part-time jobs. There’s not much time for reflection.”
That’s one of the things Bridges does best. The four-credit course, which is offered every semester, is billed as a “personal and career exploration.” Fernandez-Williams leads students in multiple activities, exercises and discussions aimed at self-reflection.
“My goal is to help students find out who they are authentically so that when they embark on a career, work feels less like work and it’s more an extension of who they are,” she said. “We encourage them to go for the passion.”
That’s exactly what Ayn Rassier did after enrolling in Bridges during her freshman year. “I signed up for it because I wanted to study Spanish and something else,” said the native of Minocqua, Wisc.
But she wasn’t sure what the something else should be. After interviewing her hometown Spanish teacher as part of a Bridges assignment, she decided to delay a possible education degree until graduate school. Which freed her up for other courses. Her ultimate choice: A double major in Spanish and Global Studies and a minor in Chinese.
“The purpose of Bridges is trying to find our strengths, our interests, our passions and identify our values,” Rassier said. “As cheesy as that sounds, that’s the goal. But it’s really important. Choosing a major at a university can be a life-changing experience.”
It seems to have been for Rassier. During her junior year, she chose separate continents for her personalized study abroad program: Valparaíso, Chile and Nanjing, China. By the end of her semester in Chile, she was engaging in in-depth political discussions of the Pinochet regime with her host family (en Españo, of course). Her Manadrin isn’t as advanced, but after three years of language courses at Hamline and months immersed in the language, she could barter with cabbies for her visiting parents.
After returning to Hamline for her senior year, Rassier became a proctor for Bridges and continued turning to Fernandez-Williams for advice. “She’s an extremely open-minded person,” Rassier said of the Bridges leader. “She wants to get to know you as a person.”
Which is one reason Bridges is helping Hamline students connect to their futures.
By Todd Melby
Both part-time and full-time college students have long received financial aid from the state and federal government. But this year, some advocates are suggesting that Minnesota’s State Grant program discriminates against part-time students. The facts don’t support these claims; here is some background about how grants are currently awarded and the public policy principles that should guide policymakers.
Both federal and state programs make a difference
Minnesota’s State Grant program was designed to complement federal Pell awards, allowing state dollars to address remaining need and serve more students. In fact, for some low-income part-time students, the Pell Grant more than covers their tuition and fees, and so these students do not receive any State Grant funds. This preserves State Grant funds to help students whose needs exceed the Pell aid they receive. Yes, this may sound obvious. But some proponents have neglected to take the Pell program into account.
Financial aid is based on a family’s ability to pay
Pell and State Grant awards are both based on financial need. Students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to be considered for Pell and State Grant awards. The form determines the expected family contribution, which is based on their income. So a student who earns $20,000 a year would pay more than a student who earns $10,000 per year. That’s a fair approach: a larger family contribution is expected from those who have the resources to pay more of their own costs.
Financial aid awards are fair to part-time students
When students attend college full-time, tuition and fees are higher than if they attend part-time. Thus, a student’s combined Pell and State Grant is higher the more credits he or she takes. And for a part-time student taking fewer credits, educational costs decrease; this means that the amount he or she can contribute to their education covers a higher proportion of their costs. This is why a student who would receive a State Grant as a full-time student may not receive one — or may receive a smaller one — when they take fewer credits. (A part-time student still receives a State Grant if there is unmet need remaining after the student share, family share and Pell Grant are taken into account.)
Consider how Pell and State Grant awards stack up for students at MnSCU two-year colleges. The average awards for dependent part-time students taking fewer than 30 credits in an academic year cover 99% of their tuition and fees. That compares to total grants covering an average of 91% of costs covered for full-time (30 credits or more) dependent students at the same colleges. You can see more evidence of the overall equity between part-time and full-time students in this table.
However, under the changes being proposed by MnSCU system advocates, students taking the fewest credits would receive the greatest increases in their State Grant awards — even though they have the lowest educational costs. This proposal disrupts the existing equity between full-time and part-time students in the State Grant program. And it may encourage part-time attendance over full-time attendance. That’s important to avoid, because part-time attendance often costs students more, delays graduation, and may contribute to lower overall completion rates.
Adult learners are not targeted in all the talk about part-time students
Many part-time students are under age 25 and are dependents of their parents. Those students 25 and older who are financially independent — and who attend college both full-time and part-time — are the ones who merit more attention from policymakers. But many part-time proponents fail to recognize the distinction. Because of the way the federal needs analysis works, adult students are expected to contribute a higher share of their income than is reasonable; additional adjustments for these students within the State Grant program would make sense. And this is a separate change, one that is not part of the overall part-time proposal.
You can see more on some myths and facts about part-time students’ financial aid. An article summing up the current House and Senate proposals is available as well.
Plans for higher ed spending are multiplying, with Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal for the next budget now joined by alternative budgets from the Minnesota House and Senate, which were released last week. And on the priority issue of need-based financial aid, it is clear that the House’s bill does little — providing just one-eighth of the new money for the State Grant program that the governor and the Senate would provide.
New investments in college students through need-based financial aid are a focus for both the Dayton administration and the Senate, both of which provide as much new money for the State Grant program ($80 million) as they provide for each of the public systems, the U of M and MnSCU.
It will now be up to the two chambers and the administration to come to some agreement on what budget to put together that can be passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the governor. That won’t become clear until May, during the closing weeks of the legislative session.
How the proposed budgets compare
Throughout the legislative session hundreds of students from private nonprofit colleges have been visiting legislators and writing them letters to point out that the State Grant program merits more investment because it is the best way to help keep college affordable for low- and middle-income students. And that’s true for college students across the state, whether they attend public or private colleges, whether they are enrolled part-time or full-time. (View more about the State Grant program and its benefits.)
The proposals from both the governor and the Senate make much needed improvements to the State Grant program, most significantly by increasing the amount of tuition taken into account in calculating grants. For a number of years, the State Grant has had a tuition cap that is below the level of the U of M’s tuition, which means grants for students at the U of M and private nonprofits do not take into account the full level of tuition at public institutions. Read more about this top priority tuition cap issue (PDF).
Both the proposals from the governor and the Senate also improve grants by better recognizing students’ actual living costs. They do so by raising the estimate of those costs in the grant formula to the poverty level. These changes increase grants for many students and expand the number of students who will receive grants.
Part-time and adult students
The Senate’s plan for the State Grant program also addresses part-time students and adult students:
- On the positive side, adult learners, those 25 and older, would receive important help through an improvement in how their State Grant awards would be calculated. It addresses a problem with the federally set method for determining financial need that hurts adult learners pursuing an education. This change would benefit independent students who attend any college in the state, and would help adult students whether they attend part-time or full-time. This is a good approach to addressing the legitimate needs of adult part-time students.
- One area of remaining concern is a proposed change that would only help part-time students at MnSCU institutions. This is an unnecessary and expensive change, one that creates unfairness in the program between how part-time and full-time students are treated. It also puts part-time students at other colleges at a disadvantage. See more on how the program already works for part-time students.
Anyone interested in speaking up for college students and financial aid yet this legislative session should visit and consider joining Advocates for Minnesota Student Aid.
Private colleges are focused on staying affordable, as demonstrated by the latest data for net tuition, which is the amount families pay after institutional and government aid are factored in. The average net tuition has generally been flat at Minnesota’s Private Colleges over the last eight years. Looking at the period between 2007-08 and 2011-12, which is the most recent year available, net tuition fell 4%. View chart
- Saint John's Abbey and University will present its highest honor — the Pax Christi Award — to the Rev. Richard Frechette on Friday, April 19, in Collegeville. A Passionist priest, physician and missionary, Frechette has been serving impoverished children and orphans for more than three decades. More information
- How Final Is a College’s Financial Aid Offer? Brian Lindeman '89, the director of financial aid at Macalester College, answers that question and more in this New York Times "The Choice" column about understanding financial aid packages.
- Concordia University, St. Paul will begin offering students at North Hennepin Community College the opportunity to complete a four-year Bachelor’s of Arts in Business at NHCC’s Brooklyn Park location beginning fall 2013. Concordia will staff an office on NHCC’s campus, providing a convenient location for students to receive support.
- Registration for Minnesota Private College Week, running June 24-28, is now open. It’s a great chance for students — whether they’re going to be sophomores, juniors or seniors — to get started with a college search. Students and parents often come together to these free introductory sessions, offered twice daily at all 17 of our campuses. This year, families are encouraged to “make a quick vacation out of it” with our extensive road trip planning resources.
- Grammy award-winner and education reform advocate John Legend will join school principal and CNN contributor Dr. Steve Perry and graduate school Dean Mayme Hostetter as the featured speakers at the Minnesota Meeting RESET Education series in April, May and June at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. Part of the Minneapolis Foundation’s “RESET Education” public awareness campaign, the events will focus on what’s working in schools around the country to close the achievement gap.
- Curt Johnson is featured on the LearnmoreMN blog this month. Read his post, “Credits or competencies,” and consider joining the conversation by adding your comment. Juve Meza of the Citizens League will be blogging about immigrant students in May.
- Find it hard to keep up with higher education news? Here are a few recent articles worth reading:
- How We Can Be Better Stewards of the American Dream, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2013
- 'More Than a Major', Inside Higher Education, April 10, 2013
- Minnesota should beef up state aid to needy students, Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 5, 2013
- Choosing a college? Here's what counts. Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 31, 2013