Wellstone to attend forum at Coffman

Chris Vetter

While the Legislature discusses how to fund higher education on a state level, several lawmakers and state university officials will meet on Wednesday to assess the changing needs of education funding at the national level.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., will hear three panels of guests who will discuss the key issues of higher education funding for this year at the Coffman Memorial Union Theater. The forum will seek answers for the question: “How can we make your higher education more affordable?”
Wellstone is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, which is charged with deciding the level of national funding for student aid. Currently, the federal government spends $35 billion annually in student aid, mostly in the form of federal Pell grants.
The funding level is decided every five or six years, and the Senate is in the opening stages of creating a bill titled the Higher Education Act, that will determine a new funding level.
Wellstone said he looks forward to discussing higher education issues on campus because they affect more than just students.
“I think affordable higher education is a concern that cuts across a broad cross section of our nation,” Wellstone said. “It is a very compelling issue to students and families.”
Wellstone is sponsoring a bill in Congress that would increase the amount of federal Pell grants from the current annual maximum of $2,700 per student to $5,000. It is unlikely, however, that the government would allocate that amount if the bill is passed.
“The Pell grant is the critical part,” Wellstone said. The bill would raise the average grant size from $1,600 to $3,200 per student annually, while allowing more middle income students to become eligible for the program, Wellstone said.
But Wellstone said the state must also do its part to lower tuition by increasing funding from the state Legislature.
“The better we do at the state level, the lower tuition students will have to pay,” Wellstone said. The federal government can also help by passing more aid for students, he added. “Federal government must live up to its commitments,” he said.
An increase in federal aid looks more promising this session than it did in the past one, Wellstone said.
“Last session we were just trying to stop cuts in higher education and we were successful,” Wellstone said. “This year, we are not looking at cuts. The question is whether or not, if (the Pell grant system) is the most effective way to help the most needy students.”
The hearings will feature a variety of speakers, including Marvin Marshak, the University’s senior vice president for Academic Affairs, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Judith Eaton and Minnesota Private College Council President David Laird Jr.
Issues ranging from tuition, student debt and tax credits will be discussed at the meeting, which will begin at 10:30 a.m. and last about two hours.
Students are invited to come, and they will have a chance to ask Wellstone questions during the last half hour of the forum. To have the best opportunity to ask a question, students are advised to sign up in the theater by 9:30 a.m.
A similar forum will be held today at Moorhead State University, although the forum at the University will be the larger of the two.
Josh Syrjamaki, Wellstone’s policy liaison, said he hopes the 260-capacity theater will be standing room only. “We want a room that is packed,” Syrjamaki said.