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Dayton seeks tuition help for low and middle income students

Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller, pictured with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday, March 17, 2015. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A third job probably would have meant Madilyne Wegener needed more than four years to graduate from St. Cloud State University.

State and federal college grant programs made the difference for her, she said, and she expect to graduate in May after four years.

"Honestly, I either would have had to take out a lot more loans than I have or I would have had to take less credits because it is cheaper..." Wegener said. "Or maybe gotten a third job, but that may have been too much."

She is the type of student Gov. Mark Dayton targets in asking for a $62 million boost to the Minnesota State Grant program, which provides tuition and fee aid for low- and moderate-income college students. It works with the federal Pell Grant program.

Dayton's budget proposal would increase the size of grants to 82,400 students and add 6,400 others to the the list of those who get grants.

In his budget plan, the governor says that increasing tuition grants is important because Minnesotans' incomes are not rising enough.

"It is all needs based, income based," Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller said.

State and federal grants pretty much can pay for all tuition and fees for students from families with up to $35,000 annual income, Pogemiller said. Those whose families make more will get less money, but Pogemiller said the grants help reduce students' debt.

More and more students leave college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, so Pogemiller said the grant program can help them start jobs with less to pay back.

Students in families making roughly $85,000 or less generally are eligible for at least some level of grants, Pogemiller said. Nearly two-thirds of the grants went to students in families with $40,000 or lower incomes last year.

Chairman Bud Nornes of the state House Higher Education Committee said he likes the grant program.

"It probably is the best money spent because it goes right to the students," the Fergus Falls Republican said.

There always is a tug-of-war between the grant program and money going to state-run colleges and universities, which in some recent years have frozen tuitions. Nornes said he is not sure where money will go this year, and he needs to be convinced the grant program needs money.

"I'm not sure it is necessary," he said about Dayton's request to spend more. "It is a well-funded program right now."

Wegener, on the other hand, said more funds would help.

"I think student loans are a huge issue right now for students and I know our tuition freeze just ended at St. Cloud State," she said.

Her state and federal grants go to tuitions, books and fees, she said. Her living expenses come from her two jobs, which she said is the most she can work and still carry a full class load.

Weneger warned legislators and schools that if tuition costs and the grant program spending both increase, students will see no net gain. While she would like to see more money for grants, tuitions also should remain constant, she said.

"The less students worry about finances, the better they can do in school and the more successful they can be in the future," she said.

When some of Weneger's friends stress out about money, she said, they may take extra shifts at work and skip classes.

State grants are available to students at state-run colleges and universities, nonprofit schools and for-profit schools.

By far the most grants go to students in state-run two-year colleges: 37,641 last year. Minnesota State four-year college students received 14,653 grants, those at private nonprofit schools got 11,827 grants and 10,758 University of Minnesota students were awarded grants.

The 17 percent increase in the program Dayton wants would "get back the purchasing power" after 10 to 15 years that the program fell behind inflation, Pogemiller said.

Wegener said about three-fourths of her total expenses are paid by state and federal grants, "not including things like rent, my textbooks, groceries and just general life things."

"I actually am very lucky because I will probably have only $6,000 in loans," she said.

She has faced difficult decisions in her nearly four years at St. Cloud State: "Am I going to buy groceries for two weeks or am I going to buy this textbook that costs $200?"

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.