Betsy Talbot knows that some students may want nothing more than to gripe about their grades.

But as the first “student consumer advocate” at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, she wants to hear what kind of problems they encounter navigating their way through college. So she’s inviting students to contact her with their complaints — and hoping it won’t set off a deluge.

Talbot, 31 and a lawyer by training, describes herself as “a neutral third party” who can help students deal with a sometimes frustrating bureaucracy.

“If you have a problem with your school and don’t know how to resolve it … I can definitely step in and be that advocate,” she said. Within limits, of course.

Since she started in March, she’s fielded just over 50 complaints, 30 of them involving for-profit colleges. The complaints “really do vary,” she said — from financial aid glitches to transcript and billing errors.

Her main focus, she said, is “to show them how they can advocate for themselves.” Sometimes, she says, students just need someone to help them think things through. But she can step in if she thinks a college has violated its own rules, or state law.

In one case, for example, she demanded that a for-profit school refund a student’s tuition after it reneged on promises to complete a clinical training program.

Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota’s higher education commissioner, said it’s all part of an effort to step up his agency’s watchdog role. He’s also considering hiring “secret shoppers” to check out the recruiting practices at for-profit colleges, which have come under scrutiny nationwide. It’s a way of putting schools on notice, he said, that someone is watching.

“My gut tells me, boy, it’s hard to believe there’s only 30 dissatisfied students out there,” said Pogemiller, referring to the complaints so far. “That could be because they don’t know they can complain to somebody.”

Talbot can be reached at 651-259-3965 or by e-mail: