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Minnesota College Students Face Mounting Loan Debt

May 17, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Republican state lawmakers in Minnesota Monday refused Democratic-Farmer-Labor Governor Mark Dayton's proposed budget compromise, sticking to an all-cuts approach to close the state's deficit. Proposed cuts to higher education currently amount to 14 percent, resulting in the lowest funding level in over a decade.

Joshua Winters, executive director of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), says tuition has doubled at many of the state's public colleges in the past decade, and is already out of reach for many young people.

"It becomes less and less, frankly, a public education, and more and more an education that's only affordable for those with the means. As a result, many qualified high school graduates are going to have a much more difficult decision when they look forward, in deciding whether they can afford to get a higher education."

He adds that an educated workforce is vital to the state's economic future. MPIRG is a student-directed advocacy group, and Winters says college students across Minnesota are calling on lawmakers to take a more balanced budget approach that includes revenue options - an approach he hopes will slow the trend of rising tuition.

Winters thinks part of the problem is that there are some inter-generational gaps between lawmakers' own experiences with higher education, and the realities that face students today.

"If you look back 30 or 40 years, people were graduating with higher education degrees and very little debt. You could work a summer job essentially and have enough to pay for your college education. Now, that's just not true; the average debt is now $20,000."

At the University of Minnesota-Morris, 77 percent of the school's graduates face their first major career search saddled with over $25,000 in student loan debt.

After completing his sophomore year at Morris, Lucas Felts is already $15,000 in the hole. He says he and his fellow students are really struggling to find a work-school balance.

"When the University says that we're only allowed to work 10 hours a week, if you do a work-study program, they're making it clear that we should be focusing on our education, but students are having to take out full-time jobs while in school because they don't want that debt load."

Felts is a little nervous about his prospects, so he's taken on a second major.

"I would much rather just get one degree and have a lighter work load, but because of the job market and my need to pay off debt, I've had to add an economics major to be more marketable."

While he has considered pursuing a master's or law degree once he graduates, Felts is resigning himself to the idea that he will likely need to work first to pay off his debt.

State-by-state data on student loan debt is at www.projectonstudentdebt.org

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN