Students could see more in-state grants

A $17.6 million surplus could be divided among Minnesota State Grant recipients.

Blair Emerson

Nearly one-third of University of Minnesota undergraduates could get more state money to help pay their college expenses next year.

The Minnesota State Grant program will have a $17.6 million surplus that could award students receiving the aid with extra money.

About 30 percent of University undergraduates receive the state grant. On average, their aid will increase by about $279 for the 2014-15 academic year, said Ginny Dodds, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education’s financial aid programs manager. 

“It’s not a huge increase, but it is a move in the right direction,” Dodds said.

The state grant, which is calculated in conjunction with the federal Pell Grant, is awarded to lower- and middle-income students.

Minnesota Student Association members and other students supported increased funding for the state grant program at the group’s lobbying event last month.

“State grant recipients are students who have identified financial needs,” said MSA member and Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition chairman Matt Forstie. “Anything that we can do to better meet their actual financial needs, I would say, is a good step.”

Last academic year, 99,440 students from across Minnesota received about $161 million in state grants. The program is projected to have $182 million next year.

Because there’s millions of dollars left over, the Office of Higher Education may also make 200 additional University students eligible for state grants, Dodds said.

Valkyrie Jensen, MSA’s University policies and student concerns committee director, receives a state grant that she said helps make it possible to afford college.

Jensen said she has to pay all her tuition and living expenses. Even with the financial aid and scholarships, Jensen said, she had to take a job to meet the costs.

“The increase in state grant funding is going to be really great for me personally and a lot of other students as well,” she said.

State grant funding levels vary by school. The formula for awarding aid factors in living and miscellaneous expense allowances and tuition and fees. There are caps on how much students can get for each type of expense.

But the current caps for tuition and fees don’t reflect the actual costs at some of the University campuses, Dodds said.

Under this academic year’s formula, the state grant program caps aid for tuition and fees at $13,000. But this year, University resident undergraduate tuition and fees were $13,620.

Dodds said the Office of Higher Education proposed that maximum aid levels for tuition and fees be increased next year so that they match what the University charges.

Living expense funding could also increase

The amount of state grant funding that students receive for living and miscellaneous expenses may also increase next year.

The Minnesota Senate and the Office of Higher Education have recommended raising the state grant’s cap for aiding these expenses from $7,900 to $8,300 per student next academic year.

A conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers will discuss the increase this week.

“The main thing with these proposals [is] we’re trying to get a little closer to actual costs students might have,” Dodds said.

Living and miscellaneous expenses are commonly modeled after the poverty threshold, which the U.S. Census Bureau determines each year, she said.

This funding still isn’t enough, Dodds said, but the Office of Higher Education is currently researching a more realistic estimate of student living expenses.

“It does not yet reach even what the poverty level would be,” she said, “but it’s getting closer.”