Bills aim to loosen ‘shackles’

If passed, several bills at the state Legislature would ease the burden of college costs.

by David Minor

Aspiring teacher and University of Minnesota-Morris senior Kane Fossell is worried about his career choice.
Unless he receives monetary assistance, Fossell said, he believes his student loan debt may reach $40,000 — which could put a damper on his goal of becoming a teacher.
However, a slew of state Legislature proposals aimed at lessening the cost of college could ease Fossell’s financial concerns if passed this session.
“I am extremely apprehensive that I will not be able to live comfortably, not to mention that [the debt] will take years for me to pay off, resulting in me paying student loans as I try to get married, start a family and eventually send those children off to college,” Fossell said at a Minnesota House of Representatives higher education committee meeting last week. “I have a growing concern about starting my life shackled to these loans.”
State lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills that would fund a tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. In addition, these bills would expand the state’s newly created student loan refinancing program, create a tax credit for those making student loan payments and increase some state grant awards.
“Student loan debt continues to hold our economy back and is perhaps the greatest burden facing young professionals, students, working families and several other groups of people in Minnesota,” said Rep. Jon Applebaum, DFL-Minnetonka, who has authored six college affordability-focused bills.
Minnesota has the fifth-highest debt load in the nation with an average of more than $31,500.
At the University — excluding private and parent PLUS loans — the average student accrues about $21,500 by graduation.
Applebaum said the measures are part of an objective to ensure everyone in Minnesota has access to an affordable education.
Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota Office of Higher Education commissioner, said students have responded to increasing levels of debt by pursuing higher-paying majors.
“Ideally, we would have students follow their passions,” he said. “It’s easier to get a good education if you are passionate about what you are studying.”
And while working in college is beneficial, economic pressures have driven some students to work more hours at the cost of their studies, Pogemiller said.
Nick Wilson, executive director of the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition and the Minnesota Student Association’s director of government and legislative affairs, said he is glad to see legislation focused on college costs. The MSLC and MSA have prioritized college affordability at the Capitol this year and recently lobbied legislators during a daylong rally.
“We are happy to see that students are being heard, and they are addressing college affordability,” Wilson said.
At last week’s House meeting, University junior Anna Reget testified on behalf of a bill that would allow people to refinance their student loans. 
Also an aspiring teacher, Reget said she has heard from first-year teachers who are struggling to take out loans for homes, cars and other life milestones.
“Their crippling student loans are hindering growth as an individual person,” Reget said.