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College aid dries up for low-income South Dakotans

by Bob Mercer

Capitol Correspondent

PIERRE — South Dakota will be ineligible for some federal aid this year because of earlier cuts the state made to public university funding.

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U.S. Department of Education officials declared South Dakota ineligible to receive aid this year for College Access, a program that helps high school students from low-income households consider and pursue higher education.

The annual $1.5 million grant was halted, effective the Oct. 1 start of the federal fiscal year, because the governor and Legislature cut state funding for public universities two years ago.

South Dakota officials said they expect the program will be eligible to begin receiving the $1.5 million grant again next fall.

In the meantime, they intend to operate College Access this school year with $680,742 of federal aid that remained unobligated from a previous award. That money is available through Aug. 14, 2014.

There will be big effects.

Many fewer of the $2,000 scholarships will be available to first-year college students. Aid will be substantially reduced to the 44 high schools, six state universities, four public technical institutes and four tribal colleges and universities that participate in College Access.

State Education Secretary Melody Schopp said she doesn’t plan to ask the Legislature for state funding to offset the loss of federal funding on a temporary basis. She said basic services will be able to continue using the leftover money.

The handful of College Access staff members travel to high schools to help make students aware of their opportunities in post-secondary education.

Events are hosted for students to attend with their parents, and families receive help completing their free applications for federal student aid, known as FAFSAs.

Schools with high percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch programs are the specific targets of College Access.

Many of the students who qualify for College Access scholarships in South Dakota are American Indians. The $1,000 is available for the first semester and is paid directly to the institution where a student enrolls.

FAFSA completions are the most important piece of the help, according to Schopp. The applications are lengthy, require personal information and are somewhat complex.

Because FAFSAs are a relatively new requirement, most current parents don’t see one until a family’s first child applies for college.

“It would never happen for these kids,” Schopp said.

The state Department of Education doesn’t actually operate College Access. The department contracts with Mid Central Education Cooperative located at Platte.

Mid Central hires and pays the College Access staff, using the federal funding, and makes the funding decisions involving student scholarship awards, counselor trainings and outreach aid to high schools and post-secondary institutions. Mid Central also contracts with the East Dakota Cooperative for an outreach coordinator.