Students lobby House to protect grant programs

Failure to fund state grant and work-study programs will put a financial burden on the state in future years, students told the House Higher Education Finance Committee on Wednesday.

As part of “Rally Day” for the Minnesota State Colleges Student Association and “Lobby Day” for the Minnesota State University Student Association, representatives from both groups and from the Minnesota Student Association implored committee members to fund state aid and restore work-study and child care grant programs.

The Higher Education Services Office, which is responsible for disbursing state grant money, transferred the entire $12.4 million appropriated for the state work-study program into the grants program in July because of a projected $16 million shortfall in 2003.

HESO also transferred $3.6 million of the $4.7 million appropriated to child care grants.

Both grants remain unavailable.

“I’ve lost both child care and work-study,” said Carrie Elgart, a single mother and South Central Technical College student, who testified for the Minnesota State Colleges Student Association. “I’m so close to graduating, but that is not a possibility right now.”

Elgart said she is one year from graduation but will drop out this summer if she cannot obtain more state aid, which she said will force her to work a low-paying job and live off the state.

“We’re going to be your future, and if we’re not going to be educated, then what’s wrong with living on the system?” Elgart said.

According to the HESO Web site, without a deficiency appropriation from the Legislature – which is unlikely given the $356 million deficit projected for this year – grant awards will also be unavailable for applications received on or after Jan. 10, for the summer term or for students who have applications pending for any reason.

“Cutting (aid) is like cutting off your leg,” Elgart said. “It’s taking away something that allows me to be productive.”

MSA Legislative Affairs Coordinator Andy Pomroy, also urged the committee to at least maintain funding for grant programs and for the University next year – despite a projected $4.5 billion deficit.

“Gov. (Tim) Pawlenty talked about sharing the burden equally,” Pomroy said, referring to Pawlenty’s State of the State address. “Any further cuts will hurt students disproportionately.”

Pomroy also said tuition increases for University students in the last two years forced students to bear the brunt of the budget shortfall.

“Don’t continue to balance your books on our backs,” Pomroy said.

MSUSA Chairman Yorgun Marcel said state university students face the same challenges.

“Taking into account the last two years’ tuition increases, we are looking at students who are gasping for air, who are going to be cut off from education,” Yorgun said.

He said MSUSA encourages the Legislature to eliminate HESO and transfer its duties to other agencies to save money and because of HESO’s failure to accurately project student aid needs.

Yorgun said the Legislature’s proposed Minnesota State Colleges and Universities base cut could raise tuition by as much as 46 percent, which would put education out of reach for many students.

He added that despite other crucial areas that need funding, higher education should still take priority.

“With what we are dealing with in this state Ö I couldn’t help but think it is the students that provide the solution,” Yorgun said. “We uplift the economy.”

Higher tuition, higher aid

Pomroy and graduate student Brittny McCarthy-Barnes, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly’s legislative liaison, also urged committee members not to move toward a high-tuition, high-aid model of higher education funding.

“A well-funded University of Minnesota Ö supports students more than a well-funded financial aid program,” Pomroy said, adding that MnSCU and University students comprise 75 percent of students in the state but receive less state grant money because the financial aid formula is based on tuition.

Barnes said such a formula also penalizes graduate and professional students, who do not receive state grant money.

“Currently, graduate and professional school tuition is higher than undergraduate tuition and sometimes higher than private school tuition,” Barnes said. “Is it fair, is it appropriate, to raise tuition in a program that would only benefit undergraduate students?”

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]