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Students face limited financial aid possibilities
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22-year-old Tometria Bean uses all means possible to fund her education as a junior majoring in math at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. As a single mother of a two-year-old girl, Bean is worried she might have to drop out if childcare funds don't come through next year. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Because of Minnesota's budget crisis, college students almost certainly face higher costs next fall. It's not just tuition that's going up. The state's budget deficit is also putting the squeeze on financial aid that many students depend on to make college affordable.

St. Paul, Minn. — About 71,000 Minnesota college students received financial aid from the state last year. Most aid comes in the form of need-based grants. Students can also receive work-study money, loans and scholarships.

Minnesota's Higher Education Services Office, or HESO, is responsible for administering the state's financial aid money.

HESO miscalculated projections for the current fiscal year by several million dollars. So the agency shifted $16 million earmarked for workstudy and childcare grants to need-based grants.

Spokesman Phil Lewenstein says wiping out those two programs was necessary to help as many people as possible attend college this year.

"It reflects increased demand for student need-based assistance by record numbers of students enrolling in our post-secondary schools," he says.

HESO officials had planned to ask the Legislature to give the agency $16 million to reinstate the workstudy and childcare grant programs. But the $4.5 billion deficit means HESO won't even bother asking.

That means no chance of childcare grants or workstudy this spring semester or summer and possibly next fall.

The possibility of no child care grants makes Augsburg College junior and single mother Tometria Bean nervous.

"It's very scary to see it go away, because it's like, well then who's going to watch her?" she said. "I saw one place for my daughter that would cost $144 a week. I'm like, I have to pray for that money for books, let alone, per week?! It just baffles me."

State workstudy money is similarly in jeapordy.

Workstudy students work on campus as lifeguards, computer lab technicians, cashiers and desk attendants. They also work off campus for local non-profits. Colleges depend on the money to help pay a steady stream of motivated student workers. And for 12,000 students a year, workstudy provides a paycheck.

St. Cloud State University is one of the biggest recipients of state workstudy money. Last school year, it received $1.1 million in state workstudy funds. This year it's been struggling without a penny of state workstudy money.

Frank Loncorich, who runs SCSU's financial aid program, says though about $800,000 in federal workstudy money came through in the fall, the loss of state money has meant scaling back or eliminating a portion of 600 on and off campus jobs.

"We had to cut the size of our awards down from $3,500 to $3,000, just awarding right off the bat," he said. "We had to shut down awarding monies about the first of June for workstudy eligible students. We had to eliminate funding for graduate assistants we had employed under the program."

Like most of the state's colleges, SCSU has stepped in to fill the gap in state workstudy funds. Loncorich says the school will borrow from past and future workstudy grants from the federal government. Schools are also taking money out of maintenance or construction projects and diverting the money to workstudy.

But they say this kind of reshuffling is only temporarily sustainable. They don't see how they can keep it up beyond this spring semester.

The state's financial aid director Robert Poch says while he's hopeful the Legislature will come through for the 2004-05 biennium, the financial aid appropriation outlook is discouraging.

"The spectre for next fall is no childcare, no workstudy, and possible diminishment of need-based student grant program as well," he said"

As the economy gets tighter, more people are heading back to school. But they'll almost certainly have to pay more to do so.

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