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.

"It is the students who need the money the most who are going to be hurt the most," said Kathy Ruby, St. Olaf College's dean of student financial aid. "I just hope families will not write off the whole thing."

Promises change

St. Olaf, in Northfield, pledges to meet the "full financial need" of its families. So, when state grants shrunk, the college spent about $400,000 to make up the difference. Cuts to federal and state funding make that pledge "more and more challenging," Ruby said.

Only a few nonprofit private colleges cover a family's full need, as determined by the federal student aid formula. Most colleges and universities don't.

In 2005, the University of Minnesota started the U Promise Scholarship to give its lowest-income students free tuition. The U used its own funds to fill the gap between federal and state grants and total tuition and fees.

That will change.

Current students will get a yearly scholarship equal to or higher than what they're getting now. But scholarship amounts will be fixed, and "the University will no longer guarantee free tuition under this program," the U explains on its website.

Why not? "The unpredictably of federal and state funding."

The difference-maker

Walker, who grew up in north Minneapolis, is the second-oldest of four children and one of three in college right now.

Her mother makes less than $40,000 working in a grocery store deli, Walker said, "so there's no way she could contribute to all our education."

"Without the Pell Grant and the Minnesota State Grant, I would not be in school at this moment," she said.

Concordia isn't the cheapest college, Walker acknowledged, but she chose it for the one-on-one connections.

One of her three on-campus jobs is as an academic adviser.

"I really try to advocate how important it is for education," she said. "Without it, you pretty much can't go anywhere these days."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168