President Barack Obama used his State of the Union speech to highlight the administration's new proposal for free community college education. There are several reasons this idea should give people pause such as a recent opinion piece from the Brookings Institution notes. And the Washington Post identified several concerns in a recent editorial, including that "in an era of constrained resources, there are better ways of improving access to higher education than establishing a new middle-class entitlement."
JANUARY 2015 Legislative Update
There's plenty of talk about higher education at the Minnesota Capitol, with the legislative session having started earlier this month. And much of the conversation is about opportunity. As Gov. Mark Dayton said in his inaugural address, "the world today offers many good opportunities. Yet, while there are many roads to successful, fulfilling lives, there is, essentially, just one path. It is through education, training, and the development of marketable skills.
This early in the session there are many ideas out there for how best to invest more in increasing higher education opportunities. Some are advocating for making community college tuition free for all. Others are focused on increasing funding to public institutions. And there are conversations going on about how we increase the number of counselors working in high schools who can help guide students in their college and career choices.
Improving direct aid to students
As for the Minnesota Private College Council, we're reminding legislators that they can help keep college affordable for lower- and middle-income families with need-based financial aid that Minnesota provides through the State Grant program. Helping one in four college students, the program targets those with the greatest need.
Here's what policymakers can do:
- Make new investments in the Minnesota State Grant program a top priority.
- Improve how State Grant awards are set. This can best be done by:
- Raising the tuition cap so that awards more fairly recognize differences in students' tuition costs;
- Improving how the awards address living expenses; and
- Making more middle-class students eligible.
Directly funding students through the State Grant program can help close our state's college achievement gap and increase education achievement statewide. The state doesn't have the means to sprinkle scarce resources across all college students, including those with no financial need. State higher education investments should instead target those who most need support.
You can read more details about the Council's agenda for investment in the State Grant program, and how it supports college affordability and degree completion. A one-pager on the State Grant program is available as well. And a recent Council newsletter article focused on the challenges we face.
"I grew up in a lower middle class home without financial support for college. [The State Grant] really supports the 'American Dream' and helps to narrow the income gap by allowing students like me access to higher paying jobs through education."
College of St. Scholastica
Hometown: La Crescent, Minn.
You can read more statements from State Grant recipients.
The private nonprofit colleges that are members of the Minnesota Private College Council award 29% of all the bachelor's degrees earned in the state. That translates to 9,958 graduates a year -- not much different at all from the U of M with 10,514 graduates and MnSCU universities with 10,737 graduates.
Yet what the state contributes -- through need-based financial aid -- to students at our colleges is only 2.9% of the state's overall spending on higher education, looking at fiscal year 2012-13.
So for 2.9% of higher education spending the state is supporting 29% of all of the state's baccalaureates. That's just one of the reasons why private nonprofit colleges are good for Minnesota.
A new factsheet sums up a few more key facts about our colleges.
A sizable share of low-income students attend all higher education options in the state. Looking at the numbers of students who qualify for federal Pell Grants, they account for 27% of the undergraduates at the 17 institutions that are members of the Minnesota Private College Council. See a chart with more data.