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Minn. Democrats want to give more state grant money to undocumented immigrant students

Campus gates at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Forum News Service file photo

ST. PAUL -- Democrats in the Minnesota House want to give more state grant money to undocumented immigrants who are attending college but do not qualify for federal aid.

Students who are not legal citizens can receive state grants, but they do not qualify for federal Pell Grants. Under a proposal in the House higher education omnibus bill, undocumented students would be eligible for more state grant money to make up for the gap in federal aid.

Students without a high school diploma would also benefit, as they do not qualify for Pell Grants. This could apply to students who were homeschooled or refugees who were not able to document their education.

Currently, these students have their state grant award reduced by the amount of Pell Grant they are eligible for, even though they cannot claim it.

“It’s a bigger burden for them to attend college and this (bill) helps fill and treat them like … all the other students in the state of Minnesota,” said state Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the House higher education committee.

How much more would they get?

Nearly 500 students would receive more state grant money under this policy, according to an estimate from the Office of Higher Education.

How much more?

On average, these students would receive about $3,350 more in state grant funding per academic year, according to the bill’s fiscal note. They would be eligible for up to $6,195, which is equivalent to the maximum federal Pell Grant.

The state grant increases would not take away funding from students who are legal citizens, supporters say. The House higher education bill would increase investment in the state grant program by $35 million over the next two years; $3.6 million of that would support this policy change.

“These are students that Minnesota has already invested heavily in through the K-12 system,” said state Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson. “This is, to me, an equity issue that just because they’re not eligible for federal Pell Grants doesn’t mean that Minnesota shouldn’t step up and do what’s right for these students.”

Republicans: Is it special treatment?

The proposal has not received a warm reception from some Republicans, who control the state Senate.

State Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, sits on the House higher education committee. He said the state should not give special treatment to undocumented students.

“I think it’s another example of Democrats wanting to push provisions in there that unfortunately put some Minnesotans behind … those that are here illegally,” Lucero said. “Every pot of money is eventually going to have a limit and it’s going to run out.”

State Sen. Paul Anderson, a Republican from Plymouth who chairs the Senate higher education committee, was more measured in his response. He said that college affordability is a priority in the Senate, and Republicans will look at all options when they negotiate with the House.

“We all know students whose financial need can’t be met by grants alone, and increasing the funding for grants is just one piece of the puzzle to lowering costs and increasing accessibility for anyone who wants a degree,” Anderson said in a statement.

The House was set to vote on its higher education bill on Monday night, April 30.