MnSCU should update students about occupational grant pilot

This column originally was published by ECM Publications

MnSCU should update students

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Marissa Colangelo and Vickie Kepler are rightly frustrated about the way an amazing opportunity for Minnesota students is being carried out. Colangelo, a Monticello High School senior, and Kepler, a northern Minnesota educator, are upset about what is happening with the MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program.

This is an incredible, historic opportunity. The state Legislature has decided to pay tuition for up to two years at Minnesota public two-year colleges for students in most vocational fields if their families earn $90,000 or less annually. The state grant will be used after other federal and state scholarships are applied.

Marissa Colangelo

Marissa Colangelo

Colangelo has applied for this grant at 12 Minnesota public colleges, but only heard from four that they received her application for financial aid. Wouldn’t it be possible for colleges to acknowledge admission and financial aid applications and give students a timeline for final decisions?

When I make a hotel or airplane reservation, there’s an immediate email confirmation. I realize that the Minnesota State Colleges and University system is not the same as a for-profit hotel or airline. But wouldn’t it be possible to have a simple confirmation that the admissions application and the financial aid request have been received, since both are submitted online?

For example, North Hennepin Community College admissions representative Candice Bartelle, who has communicated with Colangelo, explained to me the confirmation process for the admissions application at NHCC: “Once a student applies, they automatically receive an email that states we’ve received their application. And then another automatic email goes out within a couple days letting them know they’ve been accepted.”

Jim Grathwol, a government relations specialist at MnSCU, did not respond when I asked if MnSCU could give students written updates on the status of their applications. He did describe how MnSCU is publicizing the program and concluded: “I am told patience is a virtue. Something I try to practice every day. Some days are harder.”

In addition, students might not know until June how much financial aid they are receiving, explained Dave Kornecki, who does a great job as administrator of the Minnesota Senate Higher Education committee.

“The MnSCU system will not know exactly how much money the Legislature is giving it for other scholarships until the end of the legislative session. When it has that information, MnSCU will be able to tell students how much they’ll receive in financial aid, including the new Two-Year Pilot Grant Program,” he said.

That seems reasonable. Why not share information now with students and their families about when financial aid decisions will be made? Families need to plan.

St. Paul College advertises the MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program on its roadside sign. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

St. Paul College advertises the MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program on its roadside sign. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Colangelo has encountered other glitches. One admissions person wrote to her last month, “I understand your frustration and there has been a lot of confusion around this grant program and not much is being said by MnSCU.” Another admissions official wrote to her: “I will defiantly (sic) share with you my understanding of the program, though I am by no means an expert on this grant, and also direct you to the source, Minnesota Office of Higher Education, for more questions you may have. … Additionally applicants for programs will be ranted (sic) based on their application date to the college and students must apply for FAFSA.”

Kepler, who works with students at Northern Lights Community School, a charter in Warba, described to me her experiences in seeking information from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education – which received the grant funds from the Legislature. Kepler reported that a MOHE staff member told her “the Office of Higher Education did not have any information on the program and that I would need to call the particular individual colleges and ask the college which programs the college plans to use under this grant pilot program.”

She continued: “I then asked for some specifics, like can a person with disabilities use this? Does it have to be done in two years? Could teen parents enroll? And a variety of other questions so I would be able plan and focus on certain students, but this person said that was, again, up to the college and the individual colleges would set the amount for funding based on their criteria for the grant pilot program. This was very discouraging as a staff member who is trying to find ways for low-income, poverty-stricken, at-risk students to attend college.”

Kornecki explained that Occupational Grant Pilot Program funds are available for the next two school years. Otherwise people are eligible if they are admitted to a two-year public Minnesota college, graduate from high school in spring 2016, or earn a GED or Adult Basic Education degree this academic year and have a family income of $90,000 or less.

While patience is a virtue, I hope MOHE will provide more information and MnSCU will tell students like Colangelo that their admission applications have been received and that final decisions about financial aid will be made late this spring.

Meanwhile, information about the grant program is available here:

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at

3 Responses to Joe Nathan column: MnSCU should update students

  1. Tom W says:

    Dr Nathan continues to enlighten and educate a clear path forward for quality education for all of our children
    Thank you!

  2. Annoyed says:

    Look, these college representatives are the messengers. They are clearly trying to give you the best information they have. MnSCU has only had a few months to fall in line with this plan that is coming from the Office of Higher Ed, not them.

    The Office of Higher Ed created this plan based on last legislative session. It sounds good in theory but in trying to interpret a well meaning idea, by the state legislature and putting it into practice, is difficult. There will clearly be a huge learning curve for everyone involved.

  3. Thanks to Tom and “Annoyed” for their comments. The legislation is very straight-forward. It should have taken a month to get information out to families and students – not 8 or 9. And MnSCU institutions still vary in their ability to provide accurate info.