Advocates urge Walz to sign bill funding free college for former foster youth

A group poses on the stairs in the state capitol
Foster Advocates staff and fosters pose at the state Capitol in St. Paul.
Photo by Senate Media Services | 2022

Updated: 6 p.m.

Advocates for the first-in-the-nation program that for the past two academic years has helped hundreds of former foster kids go to college for free in Minnesota are worried the program will take a hit this fall if Gov. Tim Walz doesn’t sign the bill funding it. 

At the close of this legislative session earlier this week, the Senate passed a higher education omnibus bill that includes $5 million more for the Fostering Independence Grant program, which covers tuition and cost of attendance for Minnesotans who were in foster care as teens. It currently supports more than 645 students.

The program has only been offering grants since fall semester 2022, but had an unexpected rise in demand by year two. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education transferred money to fill the budget gap, but the program still needs an extra $5 million to be able to run through 2025. 

Legislators worked to fill in that gap this session, passing the bill that would transfer money from Minnesota’s new North Star Promise program, which offers free tuition to Minnesotans whose family income is under $80,000 starting this year. 

They also added language implementing a priority application deadline and outlining changes to the program to conserve money: reduce grants for each recipient if the program is expected not to have enough money, and put people who miss the priority deadline on a waitlist although students who previously received the grants will be prioritized.

A woman speaks to a committee while sitting at a microphone.
Ziigwan Frazer testifies in support of increased funding for the Fostering Independence Grants in a House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee meeting on March 21.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

“We appreciate the advocates, Legislature and the Governor for their partnership,” said Keith Hovis, spokesperson for the Office of Higher Education. “We look forward to continuing our support of these students as well as all students who are eligible for North Star Promise.”

Advocates from the foster community have said it is important to maintain the program as it is because it covers tuition and full cost of attendance, making it one of the most comprehensive and easiest to access in the country, while North Star Promise only covers tuition and fees.

A complicating factor is that the standalone higher education omnibus bill was also included in a broader budget package. Advocates are hoping to see the standalone bill get signed so their program’s fate doesn’t get tied up in any potential legal challenges surrounding the larger budget plan.

“Our concern is if the governor only signs that mega tax bill, and instead doesn’t sign our standalone higher ed bill, that mega tax bill may be challenged and brought right in front of the court. And we don’t know how that could impact any provisions within it,” said Ziigwan Frazer, advocacy and policy manager for Foster Advocates, a nonprofit that helped craft the grant program.

Walz spokesperson Claire Lancaster said on Thursday that the Governor’s Office “will continue to review the legislation passed this session.”

Person on campus06
Student Nia Dyer, a former foster receiving the Fostering Independence Grant, works on a project at a study space inside Minnesota State University Moorhead on March 21.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

The one-time money transfer from North Star Promise is a temporary bandage that will need a long-term solution. Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said he plans to seek that next year.

“The plan will be next year in the Higher Ed Committee to, when we have to do the next biennium budget, we put the priority on to the foster grant program to try to make a more permanent solution. And I think part of it, we’ll probably have some better numbers from the North Star Promise to find out if some of the money that has been committed to that can, in fact, be reallocated permanently to the foster grant program,” said Rarick.

Aleesha German is a sophomore at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and has been receiving grant money through the program since last fall. While she’s relieved she’ll be able to continue into her junior year, she feels fosters are being put on the back burner because a permanent funding solution hasn’t been found yet.

“It’s frustrating because I know there's money, they’re just being cheap. It just seems like they don't want to do it. There’s no way you guys don't have money, it's mind boggling to me that why would ya’ll promise something and now y'all trying to scratch for funds? I don't get that,” said German.

If the funding hadn’t been passed this year, German said she wouldn’t go back to college in the fall because she would’ve struggled with taking care of her 2-year-old daughter and herself. After this upcoming school year, she might have to take out student loans if legislators can’t find more grant funding for the program.

To be eligible for the grants, a foster must have completed high school, be 26 or younger and have been in the Minnesota foster-care system at any point after turning 13. Fosters don’t need to go through extra hoops to get the grants — it’s as easy as checking a box on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, or FAFSA.

The grants are meant to cover “last dollar money,” or the costs left over after all resources from federal grants and third-party scholarships are exhausted. 

H.F. 4024 also will add more restrictions on who can apply, requiring recipients not be in default on a federal or state student loan, not owe child support and not have been convicted of fraud.

A young man stands in an administrative building
Fostering Independence Higher Education Grant recipient Travis Matthews at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023
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