Lawmakers call for more info about student debt

Several bills in the state Legislature this session aim to help students understand the full cost of attending college.

by Haley Hansen

With Minnesota’s student debt sitting at the fifth highest in the nation, state lawmakers are introducing potential policies to aid students in making more informed financial decisions when it comes to choosing a college.

Several bills proposed in the Legislature this session aim to combat statewide issues like student debt by requiring schools to provide students with more information on factors that can impact their financial future, like average debt and employment rates after graduation.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL- South St. Paul, authored a “Truth in Enrollment” bill that would require all public and some private schools to disclose information to accepted students. This information could include expected tuition increases, costs associated with different academic programs and the average amount of financial aid distributed to those in the programs.

Hansen said giving students access to that information is crucial because it allows them to fully understand the cost of attending college.

Though all the bill’s co-authors are from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, he said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are on board with the idea.

While most universities already have finance-related statistics compiled, Hansen said they’re often scattered and not in an easily accessible location for students.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, authored a similar bill that would require schools to disclose a range of financial information for specific programs, including graduation rates, job placement after graduation and academic costs like tuition rates and student debt.

“Colleges talk a lot about their study abroad programs or the research their instructors are doing,” she said. “But they’re not very forthcoming about the amount of debt you’re going to go into when you get out.”

Benson said her bill aims to ultimately make schools more accountable, and it would give students more realistic expectations when they enter college.

Many schools believe they’re already giving students enough information when they enroll, she said, but high debt rates show that isn’t the case.

“I don’t think the data supports the colleges’ contention that they are telling their students enough,” Benson said.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said many lawmakers are making it a priority to ensure students have enough information to make sound financial decisions.

“It’s like truth in advertising — you have the facts,” said Bonoff, who chairs the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. “I think you’ll make smart choices, but you can’t make smart choices if you don’t have the facts.”

Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, who also sits on the committee, said he and Bonoff found that student debt was a common concern when they visited various Minnesota schools last summer to discuss issues across campuses.

He said several bills within the Legislature this session aim to help tackle those student debt issues.

“We’re trying to do a number of different things,” Clausen said. “There’s not one clear answer to this cost issue for higher education.”

Ryan Olson, government relations director for the Minnesota Student Association, said legislation like the “Truth in Enrollment” bill is a step in the right direction because transparency is important when students are making decisions.

“More information for students is always a good thing,” he said. “To better understand what institutions can offer you and what the costs of those things are is always, always a good thing.”