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College students tell Franken, Dayton about impact of student debt

The average amount of debt per student nearly doubled to $23,200 between 1996 and 2008.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken listened as University of Minnesota students spoke about their concerns over student debt.

A group of Minnesota college students put a human face Monday on troubling statistics that detail the massive education debt facing many of today’s recent graduates.

Some reports show that the total outstanding student debt in the United States is nearing $1 trillion. The average amount of debt per student nearly doubled to $23,200 between 1996 and 2008, according to the Project on Student Debt.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Gov Mark Dayton and other Minnesota public officials hosted Monday’s discussion at the University of Minnesota to hear from college students about the affordability of higher education in Minnesota.

The officials addressed issues ranging from the uncertain fate of federal Pell Grants to declining state aid for higher education, and they heard from students from the U, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the state’s private and technical colleges.

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Ryan Newbloom, for example, told of how his single mother’s massive student debt resulted in his family being homeless for two years. Now Newbloom, who also served in the National Guard, is attending Normandale Community College. He said many of his peers are racking up huge amounts of debt from student loans.

“Almost everybody in my student Senate has a crippling amount of debt that they’re accumulating here,” he told the panel, which also included U President Eric Kaler; Larry Pogemiller, director of Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education; and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis.

“I think we just wanted to start a conversation. It always helps me when I am talking to my colleagues to come back with first-hand knowledge of students’ experience,” Franken said after the discussion. “Also, just to steel myself for the battle. I think this is so important.”

Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton led the discussion, questioning students from across the state about troubles they’ve had accessing and affording higher education opportunities. The governor held a similar roundtable discussion at a MnSCU campus last session.

Pogemiller asked the group of about a dozen students whether they had to resort to private loans in order to pay for a degree. Some of them did.

Camille Morse Nicholson, a student from Hamline University, said she has private loans with higher interest rates because her parents can’t afford to help her with school. Nicholson said she believes that loans for education should have low interest rates.

“Education is an investment in society and in ourselves,” she said. “This isn’t the same as buying a pair of shoes and putting it on a credit card.”

Dayton and Franken called the students’ stories “heroic,” praising them for having the drive to overcome difficult situations to get an education. But they also criticized the older generation for not ensuring easy access to advanced learning.

“I agree with the governor that these are heroic stories, but that means we have a generation of students that have to be heroes simply to be students, which is saying something,” Franken said. “Our generation is saying, ‘Get your education, but you’re going to have to go through an enormous ordeal in order to get it.’”

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Franken is currently working to oppose plans that would allow federally backed Stafford loans’ interest rates to double in July.