Higher funding for higher ed uncertain
Funding for college students and higher education is one of many topics under consideration in St. Paul, with the Minnesota Legislature convening earlier this month. But given that this is not a typical budgeting year, any ideas for new funds will have high hurdles to overcome.
With the recent forecast projecting a $900 million state budget surplus, there is some potential room for new spending. But when Gov. Mark Dayton released his proposals this month, he left out any new funds for college students through the State Grant program. The State Grant awards help about one in four college students in the state, whether they attend public or private colleges, or whether they are pursuing a two- or four-year degree.
“At a time when college affordability and eliminating disparities are top concerns for so many families, this is a missed opportunity,” said Paul Cerkvenik, president, Minnesota Private College Council. “We’re grateful for Governor Dayton’s past support for need-based aid, but more needs to be done for lower- and middle-income students. We hope the Legislature will push for more State Grant funding.”
Supporters for increasing need-based grants have stepped forward in the Legislature with two different legislative proposals. Sen. Kevin Dahle and Rep. Melissa Hortman are the chief authors of companion bills SF 2484 and HF 2925. And Sen. Greg Clausen has introduced SF 3219; Rep. Bud Nornes is the chief author of a companion bill that will be introduced in the House next week. “These bills are an important step toward targeting aid and providing opportunities to students,” Sen. Clausen said.
It is certainly too early to predict what will happen this legislative session. The Senate and House haven’t acted and together with the administration, they will all need to come to some agreement on how to handle higher ed spending overall when the session ends in May. If there is supplemental spending on higher education, then the Council is asking for an increased investment in direct aid to students through State Grant program. The Council’s request would increase grants by lowering the share of college costs that students and their families are expected to pay. View State Grant fact sheet.
The Council will continue to work with policymakers on the State Grant issue. And more than 140 students from member institutions are expected to come to the Capitol in April and May to tell legislators and the administration how important it is that they improve State Grant funding.
The House Higher Education committee members held a hearing March 16 where the legislators learned more about the unique ways private nonprofit colleges contribute to the state, including graduating 30 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients in the state. Cerkvenik presented testimony about the role and collective impact of Minnesota’s private colleges and three presidents joined in providing testimony about their individual institutions: Paul Pribbenow, Augsburg College; Bill Craft, Concordia College; and Larry Goodwin, The College of St. Scholastica. They also highlighted the importance of State Grant awards for their students. At the end of the hearing, the chair of the committee, Rep. Bud Nornes, told the presidents that “what you’re doing is amazing and very important to the state.”
Opportunities in the tax bill
Help with paying for college could be addressed in another arena for legislative action — a tax bill. There is considerable attention being paid this session to passing a tax bill, with House Republicans insisting on tax relief. Proposals to help with higher education costs are in the mix.
One possible change would be to alter the tax laws to help families save in a 529 College Savings Plan. Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that have no incentive in the state tax code to encourage college savings. The Council has long supported such a change, given how it would help families save for college. There are also proposals on the table to give graduates who are paying student loans access to tax credits.
“If there is a tax bill, we hope a priority will be placed on higher education proposals,” Cerkvenik said. “Updating Minnesota’s tax code to better support saving for college would be a significant development.”
Other higher ed issues
When it comes to higher education spending, the Dayton administration did propose a couple specific areas for increases. These include:
- Funding to recruit and retain teachers, with a focus on diversifying the teaching workforce; and
- Grants to be used to narrow gaps in post-secondary attainment tied to race, supporting best practices that facilitate student retention and completion.
An issue getting a lot of attention this session is funding for high school counselors and other high school support staff. The governor did not include funds to address this topic in his proposals but Sen. Susan Kent has introduced legislation on the topic. (The scope of the needs for more high school counselors has been thoroughly covered recently by MPR.)