Responding to the growing burden of student debt, Inver Hills Community College is looking for donors to underwrite a new tuition match program aimed at helping low-income students finish college.
The school's goal is to raise $108,000 to qualify for a matching amount from the federal Family Assets for Independence program.
If successful, the combined cash would make Inver Hills the first community college in Minnesota to offer eligible students a 3-to-1 match on tuition money they would be required to earn themselves.
"This is a very significant pilot project" that could be a model for other colleges, said Kate Ouverson, state coordinator of the federal program, which supports low-income people in going to school, buying a house and starting a business.
Inver Hills has almost 6,500 students, most going to classes part-time while working 20 to 40 hours a week.
"I have yet to meet students who don't work somewhere," Inver Hills President Tim Wynes said. The pressures of juggling school and work keep some students from completing the two-year community college degree. The school graduates about 800 students a year.
If the $108,000 comes in, Inver Hills could accept as many as 75 eligible students for the program.
With the money they are able to save over two years in a specially designated bank account, the students would earn a 1.5 match from the school and another 1.5 match from the federal program.
The top limit on a student's savings would be $960 -- an amount that would earn a total match of about $3,300. Full-time annual tuition at Inver Hills is $5,500.
Although Inver Hills awarded $16 million in student loans this year, the hope is that tuition matches will allow poverty-level students to spend less time working and more time in school, enabling them to finish college faster and get into the workforce faster to pay off student loans and realize the benefits of their education, Wynes said.
On average, students now finish four years of college with $27,500 in debt, Wynes said.
A key measure of the success of the tuition match program will be whether it gets more students to stick with school until graduation, Ouverson said.
The emphasis on students earning the money for the match is designed to help them learn how to be financially independent, she said.
Students already can seek money for college tuition from Family Assets through local social service agencies, but this is the first time a college has stepped up to raise money to secure the federal funds for their students, Ouverson said.
Minnesota last year qualified for $1 million from the Family Assets program over five years. After the state decided not to provide the necessary matching funds, the Twin Cities United Way encouraged the college and other social organizations to come up with a match to secure some of the money.
School donors like the idea that students are earning their own money for the match and that the program offers a three-to-one return for the student's money, said Gail Morrison, Inver Hills Community College Foundation executive director.
The college has already received a $25,000 challenge grant, which the school will get if it is able to raise the $83,000 by May 3, Morrison said. Donations may be made at give.inverhills.edu.
Laurie Blake 952-746-3287