The 2013 legislative session is well underway. Our state lawmakers are considering policies and financial strategies for supporting our state’s quality of life. We believe that investment in higher education is critical to Minnesota’s long-term success and must be a priority for funding.
Gov. Mark Dayton has demonstrated his commitment to higher education with his budget proposal, which calls for a $240 million investment. His proposal includes $80 million for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) and $80 million for the State Grant Program.
We are pleased to support MnSCU’s legislative proposal and the priorities advanced in Dayton’s budget. The MnSCU budget will help students succeed by ensuring access and affordability, increasing graduation rates and providing students with the skills and experience they need to land a well-paying job and keep Minnesota companies competitive.
The MnSCU budget proposal does not rely on state funding alone, but rather reflects a partnership of shared interest. We are willing to do our part by supporting the modest tuition increase that MnSCU has proposed. Our state colleges and universities will do their part by delivering $44 million dollars in cost reductions and efficiencies.
Minnesota’s business community, foundations and friends of our colleges and universities will do their part by funding $20 million in scholarships that will help 16,000 students and by providing $33 million in matching funds for internships and new equipment. Now we are asking the Legislature to do its part by supporting MnSCU’s budget proposal.
The Legislature has another important task this session: making a much-needed adjustment to the State Grant Program. This program provides funds directly to low-income students to help them pay for their education — unmet financial need is one of the main reasons students are unable to attend or complete college. The program is good for Minnesota because these students, by earning a degree, become prepared to land well-paying jobs and increase their contribution to the state’s economic success by buying homes, paying taxes and frequenting local businesses.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with the way the current state grant formula works: It penalizes low-income students who work out of necessity and attend school part time. As a result, these working part-time students get less support from the State Grant per credit hour than do full-time students or part-time students who do not work.
Addressing the unmet financial needs of part-time students has become a bigger issue for Minnesota as the number of college students attending part time has grown. Between fall 2008 and fall 2012, part-time student head count at MnSCU colleges and universities increased by more than 15,000, a 17.6 percent increase.
Today, nearly half of all students at MnSCU colleges and universities attend part time. Underrepresented students — minority students, low-income students and first-generation students — account for more than half of all part-time students.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution: adjust the state grant formula to prorate awards for working part-time students to match their level of enrollment. This is precisely how the Pell Grant (a federal government program that provides higher education aid to low-income students) works.
This simple change would open the benefits of the program to nearly 10,000 working part-time students across the state who need financial assistance to complete their degrees. The change will help these students whether they attend a MnSCU college or university or any other college or university in the state. This change will help ensure success for students traditionally underserved by higher education and will help more students finish their programs in a timely fashion.
We understand that, despite the improving economy, legislators still have difficult decisions to make. But after many consecutive years of deep cuts, we believe that an investment in Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and an adjustment in the State Grant Program to increase support for working part-time students are the right things to do. Put succinctly, these are initiatives that are good for Minnesota.
Moriah Miles is state chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association. Steve Sabin is president of the Minnesota State College Student Association.