Senators propose changes to financial aid funding

One of the bills proposed a deadline extention to apply for state aid.

The way the state handles higher education grants and financial aid could be changed if several proposals discussed at a Senate committee meeting Tuesday become laws.

Senators at the Higher Education Budget Division meeting discussed bills varying from one that would extend the financial aid deadline to another that would overhaul the state’s overall financial aid system.

The most extensive bill came from Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. His bill would fundamentally change how the state funds financial aid and grants.

Currently, money for financial aid and grants in the state is appropriated as one unit.

Tomassoni’s bill would require the three college and university sectors – the University of Minnesota system, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and the Minnesota Private College Council – to separately fund tuition and living expenses, work-study money and child care assistance.

Peter Zetterberg, director of the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Reporting, told the committee the University supports Tomassoni’s legislation.

Zetterberg said it would allow schools to have greater flexibility in administering the financial aid system, which hasn’t been significantly updated in more than 20 years.

Susan Heegaard, director of the state Higher Education Services Office, testified against the bill, saying most students find the current system works very well.

The remaining officials were also evenly split. Representatives from MnSCU sided with the University, and representatives from the Private College Council shared Heegaard’s view.

When asked whether he supported his bill, Tomassoni said he was just as torn as the representatives.

“I’m half for it and half against it,” he said.

The committee also considered several other bills.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, discussed his bill, which would increase state grant payouts by recognizing higher living expenses and tuition for students.

The bill would also increase a student’s financial aid eligibility to 10 semesters from the current eight semesters.

HESO officials estimated it would cost approximately $50 million to fund Skoe’s proposals.

Tomassoni discussed another bill that would extend the deadline to apply for state aid from 14 days after the start of an academic term to 30 days.

Sen. Bob Kierlin, R-Winona, discussed his bill, which would increase the maximum amount of state child-care grants to $2,600 from $2,200. Kierlin said his bill would return the maximum grant level to its pre-2003 level, when the state cut the grant in response to a financial crisis.

The committee acted on none of the financial aid and state grant bills, but all will be discussed more later.