State unveils new program to assist lower-income students

Students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields may receive aid for remaining tuition.

Brian Edwards

Amid a growing push to fill high-demand jobs, the state unveiled a trial grant program to help low- and middle-income students pay for technical and community college.
Starting this fall, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education’s Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program will pay for qualifying students’ remaining tuition after federal and state grants have been deducted. State leaders passed the initiative last year to help students get jobs in high-demand fields while lowering the cost of those degrees.
The program offers more than 1,200 different fields of study for students to choose from, said Ginny Dodds, manager of state financial programs with OHE.
“They must be considered high-demand,” she said, “The [Department of Employment and Economic Development] came up with the list.”
To qualify for the grant, Minnesota students must be enrolled in an approved academic program, report less than $90,000 in income on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and participate in the mentoring services through the program. 
To qualify for the program a second year, students must complete 30 credits of coursework in the 2016-17 school year.
Minnesota’s rate of seasonally adjusted unemployment is 3.5 percent, well below the national rate of 5 percent. Still, a gap remains in the number of Minnesotans trained for skilled labor jobs.
To find what jobs are in demand, DEED looked at employment, job vacancies and unemployment applications, said Alessia Leibert, a project manager for the department.
DEED collects both long-term and short-term employment data, Leibert said, and the long-term data is important for people who are choosing a field of study.
Nearly half of the state’s manufacturing industry — which accounts for 13 percent of all jobs in the state — reported unfilled positions because of a lack of qualified applicants, according to a 2011 DEED survey. Of those surveyed, 61 percent  said community and technical colleges were the best avenues for workers to get the proper training.
As the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System focuses on placing students with two-year degrees into jobs, officials at the University of Minnesota say it’s too early to know how the program would have an effect on the school.
“I’m not sure whether that would lead to fewer community college students coming into the university or not,” said Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.
The University transfer student population varies by year and ranges from anywhere between 33 and 38 percent, he said.
McMaster said MnSCU students make up a large portion of the University’s transfer population, at about 35 percent.
MnSCU has pushed recently to keep more students within their own system, he said, which has resulted in a “slight downtick” in the number of transfers from those schools. 
Before the state’s program has any effects on the University, it has to make it past its trial period, Dodds said, adding that the program has yet to be funded for its second year. 
OHE will collect data and allow the state to examine its benefits, she said. So far, Dodds said the program has gotten a fair amount of attention.
“We don’t have an application count,” she said. “But we have had a lot of calls for it.”