Pawlenty to nominate new higher ed director

by Molly Moker

In a change from previous years, Gov. Tim Pawlenty will select the head of the Minnesota agency responsible for distributing all financial aid in the state.

Pawlenty announced last week he is conducting a national search to appoint a new director to replace current Higher Education Services Office director Robert Poch, who has served as director since July 1996. The position officially opens Dec. 30, when a law allowing Pawlenty to name a new director takes effect.

In the past, the nine-member Higher Education Services Council selected the HESO director. But a provision in the higher education finance bill the Legislature passed last year made the position a cabinet-like office, appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate.

Proponents of the switch say it will provide Pawlenty an inside look into higher education’s needs, but opponents argue it will politicize the only office in the state that lobbies the Legislature for financial aid funding.

The new director will be the governor’s chief adviser on higher education policy and budget. The director will also run HESO, a state agency with more than 60 employees and a $318 million fiscal year 2004 budget.

HESO manages state financial aid and reciprocity programs and collects data on enrollment and

financial aid, which is used to decide how much financial aid will be needed each year. If the office estimates too low, there will be a shortage of aid money, and students might not receive their full awards.

Last year, after a projected $16 million shortfall in financial aid demand, HESO canceled the state’s work-study program and reduced state child-care grants to fund existing financial aid grants.

University financial advisers and HESO officials said the changes will not be harmful.

Kris Wright, Office of Student Finance interim director, said she doubts there will be any immediate significant change in financial aid funding.

“Gov. Pawlenty cares a great deal about higher education, so I’m sure he’ll appoint someone who will continue to work in the students’ best interest,” Wright said.

She added that she thinks the amount of financial aid money available depends on the economy, not the HESO director.

Poch – who also teaches a University graduate course on higher education policy – said that although the position now carries the responsibility of advising the governor, it does not change much.

But he said benefits could come from having a cabinet-level position working with the governor on higher education.

“The governor will be better informed of higher education issues,” Poch said. “There will be a broader public policy discussion available now for the government.”

However, he said, there might be downsides in the future.

“When administration changes, it’s normal for them to appoint new positions,” Poch said. “This could mean huge changes to policies that are set. Students will have to worry about how consistent their financial aid will be throughout their education if that happens.”

Poch also said the position will now be politicized.

“What would happen in the future if we do have a governor who is not interested in higher education?” Poch said.

Phil Lewenstein, HESO director of communications and legislative services, said the change gives the governor more direct control over higher education.

“The governor will now have more of an influence on what we do,” Lewenstein said. “Pawlenty will now have a more direct link than ever.”

But Lewenstein said with Pawlenty in charge, financial aid programs could benefit.

“The governor has been very supportive of financial aid programs,” Lewenstein said. “He values helping students.”

Last year, the governor pressed the Legislature to give money to need-based financial aid – and the Legislature put an extra $40 million into the program.

“I fully anticipate the governor will continue to be a strong advocate for financial aid,” Poch said.

Poch said the change could also be a sign higher education is a priority, and he said the governor might also look to the director for advice on other issues, such as the effects of tuition increases on students.

“It’s a sign that administration is interested in doing policy work in regards to higher education,” Poch said.

According to HESO statistics, the office distributed $133.6 million in state grant awards in fiscal year 2003 – the largest amount in program history.