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U of M reduces scholarships for neediest students

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University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul, in a file photo from October 2009.
MPR file photo/Tim Post

The University of Minnesota is cutting the amount of scholarship money that goes to some of its neediest students.

The university's Promise Scholarship helps cover tuition and fees -- about $12,000 a year -- for students who qualify for federal student aid.

But because of an increase in students qualifying for aid, and concerns over declining state support for higher education, school officials say they need to make changes to the $30 million a year program. 

Sophomore Addis Tesfaye is one of the students being helped by the Promise Scholarship. She was told that as long as she qualified for a federal Pell Grant, she wouldn't have to worry about paying her tuition.  

"That was pretty much the promise that was given to me, when I made the decision to come here," she said. 

The scholarship covers a student's tuition and fees that are not taken care of by federal and state grants. 

Right now any student who qualifies for a federal Pell Grant, meaning his or her family's income is less than about $50,000 a year, gets the scholarship.  

But the university says it can't continue to pay full tuition and fees for all students who qualify for federal financial aid.  One reason is that there are just too many students who need aid.  Another reason is that the university knows it will have to operate with less state funding in the future.  

Students currently in the program don't have to worry about their scholarship money disappearing; they're covered until they graduate. 

But low-income students starting at the university this fall will have to find a way to come up with at least some money to pay for tuition. 

Bob McMaster, the University of Minnesota's dean of Undergraduate Education, says how much depends on what the student's family is expected to contribute after filling out the application for federal student aid, called the FAFSA.

"As the expected family contribution slides up, then those students would have to bring more money to the table," he said. "If your expected family contribution is $2,000 or $3,000 or $5,000, then you're going to get a lesser amount than you would have under the existing program."

McMaster says the neediest of students, whose parents make less than $25,000 a year, will still get most of their tuition and fees paid through the Promise Scholarship.  But as family income rises, so will a student's tuition bill. 

Minerva Munoz helps prepare low-income students for college through the federally funded Upward Bound program.  Munoz thinks the university will scare away some low-income students by reducing the Promise Scholarship.

"I think it'll be harder for our students to decide if the University of Minnesota is in fact where they want to go," said Munoz. "I've seen a lot of my students take out zero to no loans." 

University officials say they're concerned about low-income students' access to the school as well. But they say they're increasing their efforts to raise private money for other scholarships to support needy students.