As grant funding increases, some students fall behind

Minnesota’s State Grant Program funding has increased by 35 percent since 2008, yet consistent tuition increases leave some students struggling with college costs.

Illustrated+by+Morgan+La+Casse

Illustrated by Morgan La Casse

J.D. Duggan

The Minnesota State Grant program continues to grow, but for many students it is not enough to offset rising tuition costs.

Lawmakers are increasingly looking toward state grants to alleviate the burden of college costs. As tuition continues to increase, some students still struggle to make ends meet, even with the help of these funds.

In the past 20 years, Minnesota State Grants have increased by more than $100 million, reaching about $194 million in 2018, according to the Office of Higher Education. The State Grant Program is a need-based fund that can go toward college costs for Minnesota residents from families generally earning up to $80,000 in annual income.

“It’s always been designed to help students, it’s not designed to help the system,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, Republican lead of the House higher education committee. “It goes right to the students. So then they can take that to a private or a religious school or wherever they go. It’s their choice.”

Nearly 81,000 Minnesota college students received state grants last year. But some students, like Sophia Bursey, watch costs add up despite their grants.

Bursey, a junior studying economics at the University of Minnesota, takes about 16 credits worth of classes per semester while working on campus — yet her student debt has mounted to around $40,000. She worked three jobs last summer to supplement her income.

“I don’t have the option to not work because, like, you know, I need money to pay for different things like rent and groceries and school,” Bursey said. 

In recent years, state grants consisted of about 12 percent of the higher education budget, a slight increase from about 9 percent in 2008, according to state bill documents. Overall, state grant funding has increased 35 percent, while the University system has decreased by 9 percent.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, former member of the House higher education committee, said state grants are on top of the funding for public institutions, and help support a “very, very small percentage“ of students who need assistance or attend private Minnesota colleges.

Since around the time of the Great Recession in 2008, tuition has increased 36 percent to about $13,000 for resident undergraduates at the Twin Cities campus. 

Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, vice chair of the House higher education committee, said while grants help subsidize costs for lower income students, countering costs for middle- and high-income students remains a debate at the Capitol.

“It’s like, how much do we want to subsidize their education?” Pryor said. “When you give money to institutions, public institutions, then we are subsidizing the education of middle and higher income students and families.”

Out-of-state students are ineligible for state grants, regardless of income status.

“We can’t afford to fund everybody. That’s just — it’s just math,” said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, vice chair of the Senate higher education committee.

Cassidy Drummond is a political science and economics senior attending the University from New York. She’s accumulated $60,000 in student debt, despite receiving scholarships and federal grants. Although Drummond comes from a low-income family, she’s ineligible for state grants.

Drummond chose the University because it was among the cheapest in the Big Ten for her. Since enrolling, she said the cost of college has become progressively more expensive.

Nonresident tuition at the Twin Cities campus has increased by 35 percent over the past decade, reaching nearly $29,000 in the 2018-2019 academic year. About 28 percent of Twin Cities campus students pay out of state tuition.

“It’s frustrating, because it’s not like I get any more financial aid. And it’s not like they increase on campus wages to like, subsidize the increasing tuition,” Drummond said. “So I feel like I’ve just ended up progressively taking on more jobs.”

Drummond said she worked four jobs last year on top of being a Minnesota Student Association student senator and averaging 21 credits per semester. “I just, like, don’t sleep,” she said.