Friday, February 6, 2009

'Go Grant' program needs more funding

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The state's financial aid program for needy college students is running over budget, expected to cost $3 million more to cover all eligible students than the $24 million budgeted.

Louisiana's higher education leaders have agreed to fill in the gap this year, despite a round of budget cuts on colleges. But the state's troubled financial situation next year could threaten the "Go Grant" program.

More than 12,000 students received grants through the program in the fall semester.

Melanie Amrhein, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said Wednesday that the grants were projected to cost $27.3 million for the 2008-09 school year — but the governor and lawmakers only budgeted $24 million for the program.

Amrhein said the actual shortfall figure won't be known until March, the billing deadline for spring semester grants.

College system presidents agreed to cover any shortfall so no students should be left without their expected financial aid this year, said Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen.

"We made a commitment to students at the beginning of the year to fund these grants, and we stand behind that promise," Clausen said in a statement. "Our number one priority is to support the students we serve in reaching their goal of attaining a degree and Go Grants play an important role in meeting that mission."

The program's future, however, is less clear.

Lawmakers created the Go Grant program for the 2007-08 school year, pushed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and college leaders. Now in its second year, the program has grown from its initial $15 million and is projected to top $40 million by its fourth year.

The grants, up to $2,000 a year, are targeted to low- and moderate-income students and nontraditional students, 25 years or older. The program pays for costs that aren't covered by federal financial aid and the state's free college tuition program called TOPS. Only Louisiana residents are eligible for grants, and the maximum lifetime award is $10,000 per student.

But the Office of Student Financial Assistance might be in line for budget cuts that could curtail the program or shut it down entirely next year, as the state copes with an expected $1.2 billion drop in state general fund in the new year that begins July 1.

The governor's budget crafters asked the student aid office to offer recommendations for cutting anywhere from $20 million to nearly $37 million from its $129 million budget next year.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget officer, Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, said cuts to TOPS are off the table, so Amrhein said that would force cuts to the GO Grant program to save TOPS.

Davis has said the reduction figures were preliminary and don't necessarily reflect what cuts will be suggested when the governor's 2009-10 budget proposal is delivered to lawmakers in mid-March. Her office gave nearly all state departments a range of possible cuts and asked them to prioritize their programs. Lawmakers will hammer out the final version of the budget during a regular session later this year.

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