Stimulus bill gives boost to college student aid, less for campus repairsby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
The $790 billion stimulus bill offers a mix of news for higher education. It provides more money for grant programs and academic research. But the bill doesn't offer much for general improvements to buildings and classrooms.
St. Paul, Minn. — Higher education officials are still trying to figure out what exactly the stimulus bill will mean for colleges and universities across the country.
"The details are slowly becoming available," said Terry Hartle with the American Council on Education, an advocacy group for 2,000 public and private colleges.
The most obvious benefit for higher education in the stimulus bill is a nearly $14 billion boost to the Pell Grant program. Right now, the most a student can get in a year is $4,700. That will go up by nearly 9 percent this year and get another bump in 2010.
"This would be the biggest increase in the history of the Pell grant program," Harle said. It will be an enormous bit of assistance to low income students."
Other benefits for students and their families include an increase in the higher education tax credit, it will go up to $2,500.
In addition, the College Work-Study program gets another $200 million.
But something higher education officials pushed hard for isn't on the list; money for renovating classrooms and fixing up buildings. One draft of the House plan had $6 billion, but that didn't make it into the final version.
That leaves Minnesota colleges without a shot of dedicated federal stimulus money to fix up their campuses, something they say they desperately need to do.
That's illustrated by an eyesore of a building in the middle of Metropolitan State University's otherwise modern St. Paul campus.
The abandoned 1950s-era hospital building was once used for office space.
Metropolitan State's Dan Hambrock wants to tear it down and replace it with a new classroom building.
"You can see the windows are shot. We have no heat," Hambrock said. "All you've got left is the debris from the office space that's no longer useful for anything else."
MnSCU officials had hoped to use federal money, about $6 million in stimulus, to get this project started.
At the University of Minnesota the need is for renovated classrooms in Folwell Hall, where 12,000 students a year take foreign language courses.
On a recent afternoon, 20 students met for their Italian class in a room ablaze with radiator fed heat. Open windows offererd some relief in the form of crisp winter air.
Charlotte Melin works in the U of M's language department. Melin said this scene is fairly common inside century-old Folwell Hall.
But climate control isn't the only thing that's outdated in these classrooms. Internet connectivity is spotty at best, something that just won't do in a modern classroom.
"You could teach effectively in this type of room if you were working with paper and pencil, if you were doing grammar translation," Melin said. "That's not the type of teaching that we're doing and we want students to achieve higher level language skills than what they can accomplish in this space."
Add to the list the restrooms and elevator down the hall that don't comply with the American's with Disabilities Act, and University officials put the price to fix up Folwell at about $40 million.
Despite the way the stimulus bill spends its money on higher education, University of Minnesota officials said overall they're pleased with the package.
One bright spot for college infrastructure is funding for research. The bill contains billions of dollars that could be used by universities across the country to upgrade science facilities.
- Morning Edition, 02/13/2009, 7:25 a.m.