States Cut Student Aid And Students Suffer

Aid cuts may close door to college // Colleges grant programs face unprecedented cuts in aid for low-income students. And schools say they can’t fill the gap.
STAR TRIBUNE (Mpls.-St. Paul)

Marquita Walker is smart enough to win scholarships, poor enough to get grants, disciplined enough to work three on-campus jobs.

But the Concordia University junior worries that next year, she won’t have enough money to pay tuition.

Federal and state grant programs for low-income college students face unprecedented cuts. Last weekend, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure that would shrink next year’s maximum per-student Pell Grant by $845.

Even without further cuts, Minnesota’s already-strained State Grant program will shrink student grants to grapple with a projected shortfall. Last year it awarded $168 million to 103,400 low- and middle-income students.

Facing tough times themselves, many public and private colleges and universities don’t expect to make up the difference.

“The fact is that we can’t,” said Kris Wright, director of the Office of Student Finance at the University of Minnesota. “We can’t afford to do that in a time when our own budgets are getting cut.”

Officials fear the bottom line will mean fewer students going to college.

Add in another tuition increase, and “we may have a lot of folks heading off to some other institutions or just plain dropping out,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.

Federal and state grants, which students never have to pay back, help Minnesota students attend for-profit, nonprofit and public schools with tuition and fees ranging from an average of $4,984 for a public, two-year college to $41,304 at Carleton College in Northfield.

Demand is up

The cuts come at a time when there are more students — with more need.

In the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, financial aid applications have increased at double the rate of enrollment growth, Chris Halling, system director for financial aid, told legislators last week.

Last year, demand for the Minnesota State Grant program exceeded its funding by $24.4 million for two reasons: “an increase in financial aid applications and enrollment and a decline in income for students and families,” according to a new report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

In order to fix the gap, the office began “rationing” the awards. So already, students have seen cuts.

At Bethel University in Arden Hills, for example, 175 of 1,095 students lost eligibility for the state grants this school year. Of those who received the grant, the average amount dropped 14.5 percent — from $3,235 in 2009-10 to $2,767 this year.

State grants are tied to federal ones, so any cuts there will hit Minnesota’s State Grant program.

The budget proposal by the House of Representatives would cut Pell awards by 15 percent. President Barack Obama’s budget would cut Pell, too, by shaving summer grants and money for graduate students. He maintains the maximum per-student award.

Most Pell Grants go to low-income students. In 2008, about 62 percent of recipients dependent on their parents had a total family income at or below $30,000, according to a January congressional report.

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