Part-time students say grant formula penalizes employment

Fewer transfers at the U in the future
In this photo from Oct. 24, 2011, students walk across the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. MAny part-time students say the state's financial aid program penalizes them for holding a job while attending school. They're asking lawmakers to reconsider the formula.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Work doesn't pay" is a complaint one might hear from a lot of part-time students in Minnesota.

They say the State Grant — the state's main financial aid program — penalizes them for holding a job while studying. They're asking lawmakers to reconsider the formula.

Michael Lampson works 25 hours a week managing a Jimmy John's sandwich shop. He wants to get a degree and one day open his own business. He's studying at Rochester Community and Technical College. But he's 35 years old, with a fiancee, a child and a lot of family-related expenses.

"I live paycheck to paycheck. I have a lot of bills," Lampson said. "And with the State Grant right now, it's not even coming close to covering half my bills at school. I need more help. It's not really helping that much at this point."

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Lampson studies half-time. Because he works he doesn't get half the state aid of a full-time student. Instead he gets about $450 less per semester than if his grant were in proportion to his class load. To him that's a lot of money.

He does also receive federal aid. Combined, Lampson receives about a third of what he would get as a full-time student.

"My books alone were $473 this semester," Lampson said. "That extra $450 would be a huge asset to me, and I'm sure it would be for any other part-time student."

"We know you get higher attainment the more credits you take in a shorter period of time. Higher attainment. That's what we're trying to get."

State calculations show other students could get more — as much as $850 more per term, depending on their circumstances.

The financial aid formula is mind-numbingly complex and highly individualized, so each student's case varies. In its budget request to the Legislature, the state's college and university system has suggested Minnesota change the way it calculates how much State Grant money to give each student.

A State Grant is just one component of a package that also includes federal aid such as the Pell Grant. But the MnSCU system's financial aid director, Chris Halling, says the basic problem is this: the formula expects part-time students who are employed to contribute far more toward their cost of education than students who don't work.

It is Halling's belief that if unemployed students who receive financial aid in proportion to the number of class hours they take, so should those who work.

"I have had students express to me over the years their feeling that they're actually possibly being penalized in the grant program because they are attempting to work," Halling said. "If they were taking the same credit load but not working, they would very likely get a larger State Grant. And so in their view, they're asking themselves, 'well, why am I working?'"

A change would be costly and is not the state's highest priority, said Director Larry Pogemiller of the state Office of Higher Education.

The formula in state law includes the expectation that students contribute a percentage of their income toward their education, assuming they have income.

Working students simply have a greater ability to contribute.

Pogemiller said changing the formula to help the thousands of working part-time students would cost about $17 million annually.

Without that extra money, any formula change made to benefit the working student could hurt other types of students.

"Trying to resolve that particular student's issue through an overall financial aid system that's trying to distribute the money equitably across incomes may not be the best approach," he said.

Pogemiller said the state may need to focus its limited money on those needy students who take more classes and have a greater chance of graduating.

"We know you get higher attainment the more credits you take in a shorter period of time. Higher attainment," Pogemiller said. "That's what we're trying to get."

So far, no legislation has been introduced to change the State Grant formula, but student leaders said they will be pushing for a bill this session.