Former judge appeals to House for financial aid

The judge argued students, due to increased debts, have less career freedom.

Courtney Blanchard

Average student debt at the University went up by $10,000 between 2002 and 2005, and increased tuition isn’t the only thing to blame.

Retired U.S. appellate Judge Gerald Heaney asked a Minnesota House committee yesterday to funnel more money into financial aid programs.

“What’s an 89-year-old retired federal judge doing testifying about financial aid?” he said. “If my generation had those opportunities, this one should have them, too.”

Heaney graduated from the University Law School in 1941, and managed to graduate without debt with a work-study loan and summer jobs.

The price tag on a law degree isn’t $500 a year anymore, but even so, Heaney said the state spent about 5.5 percent of the state’s gross domestic product on financial assistance and higher education. Now, he said, the state spends only 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on it.

After several decades on the federal bench, Heaney said he was shocked to see how far his law clerks were in debt after law school.

Student debt can have implications on the workforce when students must choose high-paying jobs right out of school, he said.

“It means very highly qualified young men and women who graduate from our colleges and universities are not able to go into public service, or into nonprofits,” Heaney said.

Jim Gelbmann, Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division Committee administrator, said the committee won’t make any decisions about funding financial aid programs until mid-April. Pushed to the end of the session, financial aid programs are lumped in with other appropriations.

Even though it’s still a few months away, Gelbmann said the committee is “building up to it by taking testimony from the various stakeholders.”

Kris Wright, the director of the Office of Student Finance, said the average student debt has increased considerably at the University over the past few years.

For students who graduated in four years, the average debt was about $13,000 in 2002. By 2005, the average debt rose to more than $22,000, Wright said.

Psychology senior Alicia Robeck said she’s financing college through federal loans and working as a radiologist on the weekends because she only received a few small grants.

Robeck said she already has a large debt building up, and with graduate school in the future, the bill is only going to get bigger.

Although many students who graduate have to initially forego the jobs they want in order to find ones that will allow them to pay back loans, Robeck said she wouldn’t do that.

“If I have to keep another job to pay the rent, I will,” she said. “Once you get into a career, it’ll eventually pan out.”

The prospects for getting any grants were so grim that first-year engineering student Jesse Hayes said he didn’t even fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“You spend so many hours doing it and you get nothing in return,” he said. “The time you spend doing it could be used to go out there and make money.”

Hayes said academic scholarships at the University were too competitive, and he wasn’t an athlete so that option was out, too. But Hayes said he’s fortunate enough not to have to take any loans out, anyway.

In the end, his parents are helping him pay the bill for school.