Jenna Bunker chose Gustavus Adolphus College because "something clicked" and she received a grant to help cut down the private school costs. But she's keenly aware that the state is about to roll out a new free tuition program that might incentivize others to choose public schools instead.

So Bunker and dozens of other private college students have been popping by Minnesota lawmakers' offices this session, urging them to provide more scholarship money for people like them, arguing that a student's economic status shouldn't limit their educational choices.

"Higher education is very essential for some jobs and some careers," Bunker said. It's about providing "equal opportunities for all students."

One year ago, Minnesota lawmakers created the North Star Promise program to cover tuition and fees at Minnesota public schools for residents whose families make less than $80,000 per year. The first awards will go out this fall, and higher education leaders say it will be months before they develop a better sense of how the program might change college recruitment.

State officials estimate that 11,000 students will qualify for North Star Promise scholarships, but caution that it's too early to be certain. The federal government was late releasing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the form used to calculate which grants and loans students receive — so many schools are just starting to receive the data they need to compile students' aid offers. That means many families are still waiting on the information they need to understand their college costs and make their decisions for the upcoming school year.

"It's a little too early to say how it's going to affect us," University of St. Thomas President Rob Vischer said of North Star Promise scholarships. But he acknowledged that it's already pushed leaders there to more proactively share information about scholarships and other opportunities for students to cut their college costs.

Gustavus Adolphus College and Concordia College in Moorhead are among the private schools launching new scholarship programs this fall that aim to compete with the new program. North Dakota State University announced it will offer free tuition for one year, and officials overseeing public universities in South Dakota just announced they're dropping tuition rates for Minnesotans.

'A different environment'

Lawmakers who supported North Star Promise said they wanted to encourage more students to study and eventually work in Minnesota, reverse years of enrollment declines that strained some schools' finances, and reduce racial and economic disparities in higher education.

But private college leaders, whose students are not eligible for North Star Promise, say they have a crucial role to play in that effort, adding that about one-third of low- and middle-income students who attend a four-year school choose a private, nonprofit college.

"It's just a different environment," Vischer said, noting that some students might be drawn to private schools' smaller class sizes and specific academic programs.

Private schools usually advertise prices higher than public schools, but leaders say their students often don't pay the full costs. According to reports from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, students graduating with a bachelor's degree from a public university report a median debt of about $22,500; for students who went to private, nonprofit colleges, that figure is closer to $26,300.

Private colleges have found some support in the legislature. Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, introduced a bill that would create a "Promise Equalization Scholarship." The idea, he said, is not to provide free tuition at private schools but to give those students an amount of state aid that is more comparable to what they would have received under North Star Promise if they had chosen a public school instead.

North Star Promise works by filling the gap that remains after students' other grants and scholarships are counted toward their colleges costs. The Promise Equalization Scholarship would supplement the aid that private college students can receive under the Minnesota State Grant program, which provides funding to low- and middle-income students attending a variety of public and private schools. Cost estimates for a Promise Equalization Scholarship program total around $14 million.

Wolgamott said he attended the College of St. Benedict & St. John's University because he liked the smaller campus and the chance to play football.

"I was in a position that I could make that choice, and I want to make sure that students across the state can make that choice and that there is not an imbalance or a lack of parity in what the state is investing in for financial aid," he said.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, is one of four authors on a similar bill in the Senate. He acknowledges this is a "strange admissions year" and that some lawmakers want to see more data on the North Star Promise before deciding whether to offer additional scholarships. But he pitches this as a chance to "cast a much wider net" and help more students.

"At the end of the day, I don't care where somebody decides they want to go to college, whether it's public or private," he said, adding that he just wants them to get an education and enter the workforce.

Slim prospects this year

Legislative leaders say it's unlikely the bills will pass this session. Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said expanding educational access is a top priority for him.

"That said, I do not see a path forward for 'promise equalization' this session," he said in a statement. "I agreed to introduce the bill to continue the discussion, and I look forward to learning more about how North Star Promise is working for students and families, and how we can grow this revolutionary program in the future."

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chair of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee, noted the proposal requires millions of dollars in recurring funding and this is not a budget year.

"I'm not going to hear a bill I can't fund," he said.

That hasn't deterred some private college students from sharing their stories with lawmakers.

Ryan Eatchel thought about going to college out of state but chose the University of St. Thomas because it was closer to home and gave her the chance to study both the environment and geographic information systems. Eatchel said cost is a major consideration, and private students want more financial help from the state too.

"I see the North Star Promise as an incredible first step," Eatchel said. "This is a really good second step."