The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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March 26, 2010

Students lobby for survival of college grant funds

Increased demand, proposed cut create major shortfall

Minnesota private college students — including 39 from Bethany Lutheran College — spent a day at the Capitol this week trying to convince lawmakers that funding for a key financial aid program should not be reduced.

The Minnesota State Grant Program, which provides financial aid to low- to middle-income students at both private and public colleges and universities, is experiencing a major shortfall because of the increase in demand for its dollars.

More students than ever have applied for the grant dollars in the first year. But the grant’s appropriation is supposed to cover two years, and the money left for the second year of that term is about $42 million short of what is needed to fund all the awards.

On top of that, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing to cut another $2 million from the program.

Students from Bethany and two other colleges spent Wednesday talking to legislators from their home districts.

Kelsi Anderson, a senior, said she’s lobbied every year she’s been a student at Bethany. She said she thinks her trip this year was effective.

“Students are sometimes afraid to go to the Capitol because they think they have to know all the facts and figures about the State Grant Program,” Anderson said. “But really all they want to know is your story of why you pursued the education that you did. And they really, really appreciate it.”

Anderson said that after speaking with a handful of lawmakers, she learned that the overall consensus is that they’re mostly pro-higher education.

“They’re in support of not cutting (from the program),” she said. “And personally, my two legislators have become more knowledgeable about it over the last few years.”

Scott McMahon of the Minnesota Private College Council said the shortfall in the State Grant Program is driven by two things.

Enrollment at both public and private institutions is much higher, he said.

Also, “The effects of the economy on Minnesota families has increased the ability for students to qualify for aid,” McMahon said.

If Pawlenty’s additional cuts go through, it would take another $25 away from every student who receives financial aid through the State Grant Program.

At Bethany Lutheran College about 240 students receive money from the program with the average award being about $3,700. To be eligible for the program, a student’s household income cannot exceed $60,000.

At Bethany, the grant can typically cover about 14 percent of the student’s tuition, room, board and fees costs. A full package at Bethany costs about $25,980.

Bethany is the least expensive four-year private college in the state, and it uses that claim as a marketing tool.

“It’s our goal to keep it affordable,” said Lance Schwartz, the college’s marketing and public relations director.

Gustavus Adolphus College also participated in a lobby day. They brought about 70 students and staff, including President Jack Ohle, to the Capitol earlier in the month.

“Our advocacy is crucial this year,” student Matt Olson said. “More than 84,000 Minnesota college students receive this grant.”

More than 700 Gustavus students received state grants.

Anderson, on Wednesday, said she experienced a little push-back from people who questioned her decision to attend a private college when tuition prices at public institutions are lower.

But Bethany argues that because the vast majority of its students graduate in four years, and many public university students take five or sometimes six years to graduate, the cost question actually goes in their favor.

Four years at Bethany would cost roughly $104,000; whereas four years at Minnesota State University costs roughly $65,000. But because many students spend an additional year in college, that’s an additional year that the student is not earning an income.

With that lost income factored in (the national average salary of a bachelor of arts graduate, according the National Association of Colleges and Employers, is $48,633), Bethany’s calculations suggest, the total cost for a bachelor’s degree at MSU is $113,583.

Anderson said she’s happy she chose a private college.

“Your education is important. You should go to the school that’s best for you,” she said. “I know Bethany was the absolute right choice for me.”

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