State grant funding threatened

Increased demand for aid has led to fewer students receiving support.

Conor Shine

Like many University of Minnesota students, paying for school while avoiding debt is always in the back of Sarah BuschâÄôs mind.

A senior studying horticulture and French, Busch receives a variety of grants and loans to help pay for school, including several thousand dollars annually from the Minnesota State Grant program.

“ItâÄôs crucial,” Busch said of the grant. “Without it, IâÄôd have to take out a lot more loans.”

A Mankato native, Busch is one of 6,500 University students receiving money through the program âÄî 700 fewer students than last year. Statewide, 21,000 fewer students were given the grant this year.

The grant comes from the state general fund and targets to lower- and middle-income students. Awards range from a few hundred dollars to $6,000, with the average student receiving $1,700 annually.

An unprecedented demand for state support, fueled by the economic downturn, forced the Office of Higher Education to shift funds in 2010, leaving less money available for students this year, acting Director Barbara Schlaefer said.

“Everybody saw a reduction across the board,” she said. “The students who were kind of on the edge of getting one maybe went from $200 to $0 this year.”

The demand for the program “went up and stayed up,” Schlaefer said, and now legislators must address how they will continue to support the $290 million program while dealing with the stateâÄôs $6.2 billion budget deficit.

Last year, the Legislature adjusted the programâÄôs guidelines, leaving fewer students eligible and others receiving smaller awards in order to make ends meet.

That option is on the table again this year, said Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, a member of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, but he said heâÄôd rather see the Legislature fully fund the program.

“Yes, we have a deficit, but we also need to make investments,” Morrow said. “ItâÄôs essential we invest in workforce development, and everybody knows having a post-secondary degree is increasingly necessary.”

Other options include barring from the program schools whose students donâÄôt meet certain graduation rates or limiting the support to students attending nonprofit colleges.

Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, who chairs the Higher Education Committee, said the Legislature will “take a hard look” at the programâÄôs funding, noting the stateâÄôs deficit will make it difficult to keep up with increased demand.

The University offset the $10 million decrease students saw this year through other scholarship programs, said Kris Wright, director of the Office of Student Finance. But with the school also facing general state cuts, finding money to cover the gap in grants will be increasingly difficult.

Morrow, who teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College, said until state committees get a budget target, itâÄôs tough to predict how the state grant program will be supported. However, he said, limiting eligibility and giving students less is probably the most “feasible” option.