Grass greener in the countryside to students in debt

Courtney Blanchard

Some students have a way to get out of mounting debt when they graduate: move to the country.

Student loan forgiveness and repayment programs offer graduates an opportunity to get rid of debt but come with strings attached, such as a multiple-year commitment to stay in a rural or low-income area.

Minnesota graduates can enter several programs for health-care workers, lawyers and teachers to qualify for loan forgiveness or repayment.

Heather Rastorfer Vlieger, executive director for the Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota, Inc. said that such programs make it possible for students to turn away from higher-paying jobs right out of college in order to serve the public good.

Loan Forgiveness

The following are examples of loan forgiveness and repayment programs for Minnesota graduates.

Federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program
For education majors who wish to serve in a low-income school district. For more information, go to: ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/GEN0502.html

Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota, inc.
For Minnesota law school graduates who will serve in the public-interest sector. For more information, go to: www.lrapmn.org

Minnesota Department of Health
Loan forgiveness programs for medical professionals. For more information, go to: www.health.state.mn.us/divs/
cfh/orhpc/loan/home.html

“I think without loan repayment assistance, it’s impossible for new lawyers to accept and remain in public-interest employment,” she said.

Vlieger directs a nonprofit organization that offers loan repayment to recent law school graduates.

The average law school student graduates with $88,000 in debt, said Vlieger, and the program offers to pay about $4,000 per year for up to 15 years, dependent on family income and area of employment. Many applicants for the program work as legal aids for nonprofits or serve low-income clients.

Amy Vallery, the loan forgiveness program administrator for the Minnesota Department of Health, said graduates in the medical field can also have their debt forgiven by the state of Minnesota.

New physicians must work full time in a rural area for three years to receive about $17,000 per year toward loans, Vallery said. If they drop out of the program, they must repay the state any amount that went toward loan forgiveness.

There is a severe shortage of doctors outside of the metro area, Vallery said.

Excluding the seven metro-area counties and larger cities like Duluth and Mankato, almost any community in Minnesota qualifies for the program.

Other programs offer students the chance to work with low-income patients. Vallery said there are options for nurses, dentists and pharmacists, too.

Doctors and lawyers traditionally have the highest debt right after graduation, but teachers also have access to loan forgiveness.

Cheryl Maplethorpe, director of the Division of Student Financial Aid for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, said the federal government offers loan forgiveness for teachers who work in low-income areas for several years.

Education first-year Jessica Mino said she hasn’t decided whether to take advantage of a loan forgiveness program.

“I don’t know where I want to end up after graduation,” she said. “I’m not generally concerned about getting myself taken care of, but I want to go where I’m needed.”

Originally from Illinois, Mino said she’s more interested in teaching where she’s wanted than paying back loans quickly.

Sometimes students must consider loan repayment when choosing a career, and that can boost certain fields.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a measure to forgive loans for Ojibwe, Dakota and other indigenous language teachers in the state.

Associate professor David Treuer, who translates Ojibwe stories and texts, said while there is not a large shortage of native speakers, there’s a need for people who are trained in teaching.

“Such a program is absolutely necessary in order to ensure the survival of Ojibwe and Dakota languages and cultures that are fundamental parts of the cultural landscape of the region,” he said.

Treuer said Minnesota has some of the best programs in the country for teaching indigenous languages, and loan forgiveness will attract qualified and motivated students.