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The Star Tribune - Minnesota Should Boost State Aid to Needy Students

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By The Star Tribune Editorial

They are the faces of Minnesota's future, Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken told the nine impressive students assembled around a table at St. Paul College on Tuesday. They're high academic achievers, campus leaders, community volunteers -- and debtors.

Each of them told a story of financial struggle and resourcefulness in pursuit of their dreams. An undocumented immigrant, in Minnesota since age 3, works nearly full time and scrambles for scholarships because she's ineligible for government-sponsored financial aid. A daughter of Texas migrant workers started a business to support three generations of family members while she pursues her master's degree. Several undergrads used advanced placement, International Baccalaureate and the state's postsecondary option to take college classes at little or no cost while in high school to reduce college costs and shorten their routes to a full-time paycheck.

Despite those efforts, each of them is racking up debts that will run into five figures when their college careers end. A University of Minnesota pharmacy student said six-figure debt is common in her graduate school cohort.

Their drive to achieve is inspiring, Franken said. But so much student debt is "not good for America, and it's certainly not good for the young people who will be saddled" with it for years to come.

That sentiment should guide the Legislature in coming weeks as it sets state higher-education spending for the next two years. Minnesota college graduates ranked third in the nation in 2011 in the average $29,793 debt with which they left campus.

That much debt, borne by 71 percent of the state's college graduates, is a drag on both young lives and the state's economy. It also contributes to a troubling lag in college completion rates. The latest longitudinal study, following the high school class of 2003, found that 75 percent of those 56,351 Minnesotans had enrolled in a postsecondary educational program by age 25, but only 48 percent finished.

Dayton is proposing a big step in a better direction. The DFL governor recommends respectable biennial increases of $80 million apiece for the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities -- an amount sufficient to tamp down tuition increases in the next two years.

Better still, he is seeking an $82.5 million increase in the State Grant Program. That 30-year-old supplement to the federally funded Pell Grant now accounts for 11 percent of total state support for higher education. Dayton is asking that it receive about 35 percent of this year's new higher-ed money -- the biggest increase in dollar terms in the program's 30-year history, and the largest percentage increase in 25 years.

That shift of state dollars in the direction of aid for needy students partially makes up ground lost during the recession (see adjacent box). It also acknowledges the modern reality of American higher-education funding. States can't afford the subsidies that would be required to keep public college tuition low for all -- not without damaging the quality of public higher education. But a state that wants an economy built on the foundation of a well-educated workforce has to do better than Minnesota has done of late to keep college affordable for low- and middle-income learners.

Dayton is proposing changes in the State Grant Program formula that would renew its original purpose. It was intended to allow students of modest means the same range of in-state higher-education choices that more affluent students have. Lagging funding has made the U and most private colleges an uncomfortable reach for many grant recipients.

That should change. So should the formula's features that work to the disadvantage of part-time students who work to help support their families. The average age of students in the MnSCU system is 25; a large share of MnSCU students work more than 20 hours per week. Those students are as deserving of State Grant Program help as are 18-year-olds.

Undocumented immigrants who were raised and educated in Minnesota also deserve access to affordable college educations. The long-sought Dream Act, making them eligible for resident tuition and the State Grant Program, should become law this year.

Some legislators are promoting another idea for college debt relief -- a tax credit of up to $4,000 a year to refund college loan debt service for low- and middle-income debtors.

As drafted, the credit is a budget-buster. Its biennial price tag by 2016-17 is larger than Dayton's total proposed 2014-15 higher-ed increase. But a small, targeted credit might be useful for easing worker shortages in key professions and places.

The students Dayton and Franken met this week, and those who came to the Capitol to plead for the DREAM Act and more college funding, exemplify something very positive: This state's young people believe in the value of higher learning and are willing to sacrifice now for gains later.

But they aren't the only Minnesotans who stand to gain from their learning. And their share of its costs has climbed high enough.

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