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Private College Council requests increased funding for the state grant program

Increased funding for the state grant program is a legislative priority for the Minnesota Private College Council this session.

The organization is comprised of 17 private, nonprofit institutions, such as the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Hamline University in St. Paul and Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. While its colleges and universities do not receive state higher education appropriations for operating support or capital funding, students are eligible to receive federal Pell Grants and state grants.

“Only a small share of the total state higher education budget, less than 4%, benefits our students who are able to directly receive need-based financial aid through the Minnesota State Grant program,” said Paul Cerkvenik, council president.

Cerkvenik delivered the organization’s request to the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee during its meeting Tuesday. No action was taken.

The state grant program provides need-based grants to low- and middle-income students to assist them with tuition and living costs while enrolled in Minnesota colleges and universities, according to Meredith Fergus, a manager with the Office of Higher Education. 

The awards are based on a model of shared responsibility, in which students and families are expected to pay 50% of the price of attendance. A combination of Pell Grants and state grant funds cover the rest.

In fiscal year 2020, a total of $207.9 million in state grants were distributed among 77,544 recipients. Of that, students enrolled in private, nonprofit institutions received $71.3 million.

There are 54,700 students enrolled in the private nonprofits statewide, according to Cerkvenik, and “Contrary to a common misperception about private colleges, our institutions serve the same share of Pell Grant recipients as the Minnesota State system.”

To help support lower- and -middle income students in private and public institutions statewide, the council is requesting a funding increase of $67.5 million for the program to reduce the student’s share from 50% to 47%.

“It’s just simply not possible for students to pay that 50% student share through reasonable student work and reasonable borrowing,” Cerkvenik said. “When students work too much, it negatively impacts retention and graduation, and when the student’s share is too high it puts pressure on students to borrow more than is ideal.”  

Additional state grant support would go a long way to make college more affordable, he said, and it could help offset pandemic-related financial woes.

“Many students have lost their on- or off-campus jobs, and for some, their parents have also lost jobs or lost income. These are the students who receive state grants who most need additional help from the Legislature. The pandemic’s impact means the need to increase the state grant program is greater than ever,” Cerkvenik said.

Rep. Ginny Klevorn (DFL-Plymouth) shared support for the opportunities and positive educational outcomes that private colleges offer students but noted that — in addition to state grant funds — they receive financial support through tax breaks due to their nonprofit status.

Hamline University President Fayneese Miller said they appreciate the support they get in terms of tax-payer dollars, “but there’s so much more that we do as well, we give back to the community in very significant ways.” 

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