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Grants save college careers

ST. PAUL -- It was a rough summer for Alyssa Courneya.

The young Alexandria, Minn., woman did not know where she would go to school this fall. Then, near the end of summer, she received the news she wanted to hear: A federal Pell college grant was headed her way, meaning she could continue her studies at the College of St. Scholastica instead of a bigger school in the same city (the University of Minnesota-Duluth) or a technical school that would not give her the background she needs to become a doctor.

"I jumped up and down and I ripped up my UMD application," Courneya said. "My mom baked me a cake. I was like the happiest person. ... The world makes sense."

That is a real-life story politicians in Washington and St. Paul talk about when they voice college grant support. And most politicians do support them, although controversy looms as Democrats, led by the president, want to eliminate most private-bank loans to students, replacing them with a government-run program that they say will free up money for more Pell grants.

State grants and ones from the federal Pell program work together.

The less a family earns, the more likely it is to receive state and Pell grants. Students in families earning more than $75,000 are unlikely to get the grants.

The maximum Pell grant this year is $5,350. Top state grants can be $9,444.

The grants have become the foundation of undergraduate college aid, although students continue taking out increasingly larger loans.

No one knows how many students could not attend school without the grants, but those in the business think the numbers are up this year due to the recession.

"I'm sure there were decisions made around the kitchen table late last spring and early this summer that we were not privy to," said Eric Berg, Scholastica vice president of enrollment management.

It was obvious, he added, that there was "a very substantial" increase in the number of families making less money, including many in which a parent lost a job.

"In this recession, we need to remember that one of the driving forces that led to the recession was the housing market," Berg said, which means many families already have borrowed all they can against their home's value and students in those families must rely on grants if they are to attend school.

However, school costs are rising more than grants.

"The purchasing power of a grant is just not what it used to be," said Trish Johnson, Scholastica's associate director of financial aid.

At a recent University of Minnesota-Twins Cities meeting with Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., students repeated time and again that loans are getting out of control

Deb Pusari of the University of Minnesota said students now average $20,000 in loans when they graduate. However, some graduate students told Franken their classmates may take out loans worth many times the average.

James Hausmann, Concordia College of Moorhead government relations official and a former college vice president, said financial aid has changed over the years: "Back in my days when you could make almost enough in the summer to pay your way through school."

Congress significantly increased Pell grants last year and the state changed its program so its own grants could be spread out to more students.

"They accepted the fact that we can probably hold somewhat harmless the low-income, high-need students," Hausmann said of state legislators.

Too many students have "maxxed out all their loans," he added, leaving grants as their major hope to attend college.

Changes on state and federal levels helped students like Courneya.

She said it is important for a student from a small town like Alexandria to be able to attend a small college, where she has small classes and close contact with professors. A technical college like she could attend back home would not give her the background she needed as a pre-medicine student, she said.

However, today's economy is rough, and even with both of her parents working, money is scarce. "It seems rough all around."

For Courneya, the result of getting state and federal grants, is simple: "It means I get to go to college."

Congress is looking at making changes in the college grant and loan system.

Franken stopped at the University of Minnesota two weeks ago to promote a Democratic move to eliminate most college loans made by private banks. Franken said that by turning the loan business over to the government, $87 billion would be freed up in the next 10 years. Most of the savings would be plowed back into higher education, Franken said, with nearly half being used to increase the popular low-interest Pell grant program.

But Minnesota's top-ranked education lawmaker does not like the idea.

"When the Republicans were in the majority in Congress, the Republicans steadily increased the total amount of money appropriated for Pell grants, the size of the maximum award and the number of recipients," said U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top-ranking House GOP education lawmaker. "I think it is safe to say Democrats and Republicans have been supportive of Pell grants."

But bipartisan support is lacking for the Democratic proposal, coming during tough economic times. The federal government does not have the money to make the change Democrats propose, Kline said, so it would have to be borrowed "from China or someplace."

"They are eliminating the private sector," Kline said. "They are eliminating jobs in the private sector."

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.