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Agency’s higher ed bill is mostly tweaks, but foster students express displeasure

“Infrastructure and implementation” is a phrase Gov. Tim Walz has used when asked what his administration would like to accomplish this legislative session. While “infrastructure” clearly refers to creating a capital investment bill, look no further than HF4024 for an example of implementation in action.

Sponsored by Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. (DFL-Winona), it contains 43 proposed policy changes from the Office of Higher Education, mostly clarifications and adjustments dealing with scholarships and grants. There are also updates to the agency’s sexual harassment and violence policy and regulation of private career schools.

The bill was laid over, as amended, Thursday for possible inclusion in the higher education policy bill. Before the committee adjourned, Pelowski said this legislation would provide the basis for that bill, which he hopes to pass out of committee next Thursday.

Letters to the committee about the legislation all dealt with a proposed change in the process of applying for Fostering Independence Grants, a college scholarship program for students currently or formerly in foster care. Many program participants were upset to find the program would now have a first-come, first-served application process and a waiting list for remaining available funds.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Nekey Oliver, director of government relations and community engagement for the Office of Higher Education. “The advocates and the institutions and our agency have been doing our job in getting the word out about that benefit. So we have run into demand outpacing the available resources. … We have done everything within our power to address the shortfall, including — in January, when we had projected a spending imbalance in state grants — moving almost $3 million into the Fostering Independence Grants program.

“Unfortunately, demand is high across the board, so we’re running shortfalls in all of our programs. … I know we’re in conversation with the advocates and Rep. [Kim] Hicks [DFL-Rochester] about other possible solutions.”

The proposed change has some foster advocates upset, including Ace Goff, co-chair of the Foster Advocates community board.

“It feels like you said take my hand, we got you, locked eyes with us and then turned us to the edge of the cliff and let go,” Goff wrote in a letter to the committee. “We already had our childhood stolen from us, please don’t be the reason our futures are, too.”

The bill would also:

  • add an academic progress requirement to the American Indian Scholars program;
  • codify the state’s transcript access law;
  • require schools to designate an employee as a “navigator” to assist parenting and pregnant students and create protections for those students at public colleges and universities;
  • make tribal colleges eligible for inclusive higher education grants;
  • clarify eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price school meals in summer academic enrichment programs;
  • require ordering students’ financial aid awards to provide the greatest amount of aid to students;
  • provide clarifications for the North Star Promise scholarship program;
  • clarify conditions in the SELF loan program;
  • amend definitions in the Minnesota Private and Out-of-State Public Postsecondary Education Act; and
  • amend definitions and licensure requirements in the Private Career School Act.

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