How one Minnesota state program is helping college students graduate with nearly no debt

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MOORHEAD, Minn. — In speech after speech, Bernie Sanders called for making college tuition free. His stance on the issue helped draw in legions of young voters who backed his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But before there was Bernie, there was the Minnesota Legislature.

In 2015, state lawmakers signed off on a two-year pilot program called the MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) College Occupational Grant. The program was created to provide financial assistance to students enrolled in technical programs at MnSCU two-year colleges — including Minnesota State Community and Technical College, or M State, which has campuses in Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena.

Nearly $4 million was set aside for the pilot program, which applies to about 1,200 different courses of study — from cosmetology to criminal justice. The money was distributed to 30 different community and technical colleges throughout the state. M State, which ranks as the fifth-largest college in the state, was allocated the third-highest amount of funding at just under $250,000.

The occupational grant went into effect for the 2016-17 school year. It covers any remaining tuition and general fee charges after a student's Federal Pell Grant and Minnesota State Grant are applied.

The occupational grant caught the eye of many incoming students. So many, in fact, that a waiting list was created after M State approached the maximum dollar amount they could award.

"We had students in the pipeline that we had told, 'Go out and apply,' and unfortunately for some, the funds were gone," said Peter Wielinkski, M State's vice president of student development and marketing.

About 70 M State students received the grant in the 2016-17 school year. To qualify, an applicant must be a Minnesota resident, have a high school diploma or GED certificate and have an adjusted gross income of $90,000 or less.

Students who receive the grant are required to have a mentor who guides them on everything from financial planning to successful study habits.

Grant recipient Brenna Graham said she struggled early on in her freshman year with procrastination, but her mentor offered a couple suggestions that she put into practice. "I saw a noticeable difference in my grades," said Graham, who's studying criminal justice to become a police officer.

Student Brandon Ash said he had a similar experience in his first year. "My mentor was great," he said. "She told me everything I needed to do to keep the occupational grant."

Ash, who is an automotive service technology major currently working for Ford Motor Co., said he paid about $600 in tuition for the first academic year after the occupational grant was applied. Since the grant does not cover any out-of-pocket expenses, Ash said he did have to spend close to $4,000 on tools.

Graham, who had nearly no out-of-pocket expenses, said she spent only $200 on tuition for the first year after the occupational grant was applied.

"The program has been absolutely amazing," she said. "It's been a huge help financially."

M State, which markets itself on affordability, had 2,270 students (51 percent of its student body) in the 2016-17 school year who finished the year tuition-free, as a result of the aid they received and the affordability of tuition. For 30 credits at M State, tuition costs $5,360.

Similar program in N.D.?

The North Dakota University System (NDUS) does not offer its incoming students any program similar to MnSCU's occupational grant, but an NDUS spokeswoman said it may be a possibility in the future.

"Of course we would consider something like what MnSCU has," Billie Jo Lorius said. "But we don't have the money for it right now."

NDUS does offer graduating students the chance to apply for a couple of loan-forgiveness programs. One program offers college graduates employed in STEM-related occupations in North Dakota loan forgiveness up to $1,500 per year for up to four years.

There's also the teacher shortage loan forgiveness program that applies to applicants who held a full-time teaching contract in North Dakota for one year and are teaching in an area short on teachers. Qualifying teachers can obtain up to $1,000 in loan forgiveness each year, with a maximum lifetime benefit of $5,000.

As part of North Dakota's recently passed two-year budget, higher education in the state will face a 30 percent drop in general fund spending from $896.6 million two years ago to now $624.9 million.

Future funding?

The occupational grant pilot program is scheduled to wrap up at the end of the 2017-18 academic year, and it's unclear whether the program will continue to be funded.

Last week, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed off on 10 budget bills totaling $46 billion for the state's upcoming two-year budget. As part of the budget, higher education is set to receive a significant boost, as well as a tuition freeze for the 2018-19 academic year.

As of Wednesday, May 31, the 2018-19 higher education finance bill did not specifically include a renewal of the occupational grant pilot program. However, a $1 million appropriation in fiscal year 2019 and $500,000 for 2020 is due to be allocated toward "workforce development grants."

While it's not certain whether that language includes the occupational grant pilot program, Wielinski said he's hopeful the general boost in higher education funding leads to the renewal of the program.

"I would hope that this pilot gets picked up and replicated," he said.