Higher education funds discussed at Coffman

by Chris Vetter

Federal support for higher education drew more than 150 people, including Sen. Paul Wellstone, to the Coffman Memorial Union Theater on Wednesday.
Wellstone sponsored a forum, which included university officials and students from across Minnesota, to discuss what methods for funding higher education would best serve the state’s students and their families.
Wellstone is gathering testimony from experts so he can use this information for writing the Higher Education Act. Wellstone is on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that authors the act every five to six years. The act authorizes the amount of federal funding to be spent each year for higher education, which is currently about $35 billion.
The largest portion of this funding, about $5.3 billion, goes to Federal Pell grants, which are direct grants to students from low-income families.
Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, told Wellstone that the Pell grants are vital forms of aid for many University students. He said the federal act is important to the nation’s future.
“The reauthorization of this bill is nothing less than the federal government’s recommitment to the United States of America,” Marshak said. “If we provide as many of our students as possible the opportunity of higher education in this nation, we will be rewarded many times over.”
Wellstone is sponsoring a bill in Congress that would increase the maximum Pell grant award from the current level of $2,700 to $5,000. Most of the speakers urged Wellstone to push for this legislation.
President Clinton favors increasing the maximum amount to $3,000.
Bills that call for tax credits and tax deductions for higher education savings are being considered in Congress as alternatives to Pell grants. Several speakers said they preferred that Congress stay with the Pell grants rather than include these tax programs.
Robert Poch, director of the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office, said he fears that tax credits could reduce the Pell grant funds.
Marshak said Pell grants are the preferred option for most people. “The program is reasonably well-targeted to the lowest-income segment of the population,” Marshak said.
Costs of higher education have climbed dramatically in the past two decades, said James Nobles, the state legislative auditor. Nobles said tuition rates at the University have climbed 260 percent from 1978-1992, while state appropriations have only climbed 92 percent during the same time span. Nobles added that state appropriations are less than the rate of inflation for that period.
A state law reduces the amount of state grants students can receive if they receive large federal Pell grants. Several students and university officials throughout the state said they would like to see this law changed so students can keep their full grants from both state and federal governments.
A college diploma can send students into deep debt, the students said. Many said they have debts between $10,000 and $20,000 due to college costs.
RunningHorse Livingston, a College of Liberal Arts junior who was on a panel of student witnesses, said the Pell grants are vital for lower-income families.
“Consider the Pell grant a critical investment,” Livingston said. “It is responsible for providing access and relieving debt. It helps struggling Minnesota families.”
Wellstone said he was glad to hear the testimony from a wide variety of witnesses.
“I do believe in this process,” Wellstone said. “I learned a lot.”