State Grants and part-time students: What already works
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.