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Student loan debt needs leadership

Inadequate state investments in higher education over the last decade and a half have are leading to negative consequences for our economy. These cuts have led to tuition increases of 26 percent and 175 percent in constant dollars in the last 10 and 25 years, respectively, at the University of Minnesota.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have led to record student loan debt amounts for our young people, hampering their ability to be full participants in our economy. In 2014, Minnesota was ranked the fifth highest state in the nation for average debt loads at over $31,500 for those with bachelor’s degrees. Approximately 70 percent of Minnesotans carry student debt after graduating, giving Minnesota another dubious ranking: third in the nation.

Minnesota has a statute on the books (135.01) outlining a funding policy intention of directing the Legislature to appropriate at least 67 percent of a student’s tuition to our public institutions. Since the early 2000s we have failed to comply with this statute and state support is now dropping well below the intention. Higher education funding was one of the first things put on the chopping block when Minnesota experienced state budget deficits during the Ventura and Pawlenty administrations and House GOP majorities. With the state budget now on more solid ground with a $1.4 billion surplus, what can we do to reverse these trends?

Gov. Dayton and DFL legislators negotiated a tuition freeze in 2013 at the U of M and Minnesota State schools. The House GOP did not increase funding for higher education and did not continue a tuition freeze after taking the majority in 2015, despite a budget surplus. We must recognize the lost opportunities to Minnesotans and to our economy when our state fails to invest in our people.

It’s not just students at our public institutions who have seen consequences of disinvestment. We have tremendous private colleges and universities in this state, and for many years low and middle income students have been able to take advantage of the Minnesota State Grant to attend them, as well as the public institutions. We must make sure this program is funded at an adequate level to ensure it meets demand. I hope we can make changes in the student and family responsibility formulas to more equitably determine grant amounts.

It is time to discuss larger investments in higher education, beyond our existing programs. For my part, I introduced the Minnesota Affordable College for All Act with Sen. Ron Latz. This bill creates a “last dollar” grant program to pay for the cost of undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in Minnesota that are not covered by Pell grants, state grants or other scholarships. While receiving these grants, students would be required to make satisfactory academic progress. To be sure, full implementation of this program would require a sizable investment from the state budget. But following the long-term, sizable disinvestments in higher-education, it will take nothing less than bold actions and innovative ideas to get us back on a sustainable path.

When students carry significant debt loads, they are not able to buy houses or vehicles, start businesses or start families. This harms our economic engine of growth. In Minnesota, we have excellent institutions of higher learning, both public and private. It’s up to us to work together and provide meaningful investments in these colleges and universities, not just to ensure students can obtain degrees, but to increase economic opportunities for all Minnesotans and be a driving force toward growth and global competitiveness well into the future.

Jennifer Schultz

Rep. Jennifer Schultz DFL-Duluth represents District 7A in the Minnesota House. She can be reached at (651) 296-2228.

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