Legislators mull allowing groups to administer education grants

The bill would shift allocation powers from a state agency to public and private higher education institutions.

by Libby George

Legislators trying to prevent repeats of this year’s removal of state work-study grants and reduction of child care grants considered a bill Wednesday that would put all financial aid into the hands of institutions.

This would mean the University – along with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and private, nonprofit colleges – would be able to determine how aid is distributed to students.

The revision could change which students receive grant money, and Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Robbinsdale, said it will “streamline the delivery of aid and remove a layer of bureaucracy.

“The governor Ö has asked us to think outside the box with these difficult financial issues,” said Carlson, who authored the bill.

Carlson said the change would allow institutions to tailor grant programs to students’ needs, which is lacking in the current program.

“We would no longer be attempting a one-size-fits-all system,” he said.

Currently, the Higher Education Services Office distributes all state aid and has a uniform policy for students at all institutions.

The higher education office is also responsible for predicting the demand for aid. In July, a projected $16 million shortfall in the program caused by the office’s underestimation of demand led to the cancellation of work-study grants and cutbacks in child care grants.

House Higher Education Finance Committee Chairman Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring, said he had some misgivings about the bill because it would leave no central agency in charge of oversight.

“From a public policy standpoint, how can you go back to your constituents and say ‘this is accountability’?” Stang asked.

University support

Institutional Research and Reporting director Peter Zetterberg testified for the University in support of the bill.

Zetterberg said the main question is whether the Higher Education Services Office is adequately fulfilling students’ financial aid needs.

“My feeling is that the answer to that question is no,” Zetterberg said.

He added that shortfalls would not be as likely under Carlson’s bill because institutions would be responsible for predicting aid.

“A lot of the current uncertainty in predicting the need for grants would be mitigated to a great extent,” Zetterberg said.

MnSCU representatives also supported the bill.

“There are a lot of cracks in the system,” said Jim Schmidt, vice president for university advancement at Winona State University.

He agreed with Zetterberg that Carlson’s bill would solve many of the problems faced under the education agency’s administration.

“I’ve heard some say this will be the demise of the program,” Schmidt said. “I think it will strengthen it.”

Mike Lopez, MnSCU vice chancellor of student affairs, said institutions would be better able than the Higher Education Services Office to tailor their programs for nontraditional and part-time students.

Lopez said these students currently do not receive much grant money but sometimes need it more than full-time students.

Dissent expressed

Not everyone, however, saw merit in the bill.

Michael Wilhelmi spoke against it on behalf of the Private College Council.

Wilhelmi said the system would remove any kind of central advocacy for students in need of grants, and he added that institutions such as the University and MnSCU, which are “trying to get as much money into their base budgets as possible,” would not distribute grant money aggressively.

He said he supported a different plan in which the higher education agency would be made into a Cabinet organization, with the governor appointing the head.

The agency’s director, Robert Poch, also spoke against the bill.

“We advocate for all students,” Poch said. “You would lose that with the proposed legislation.”

The bill was tabled for possible inclusion in to the higher education finance omnibus bill, expected to pass later this month.

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]