Minnesota college students face loan crisis

Kids from low-income families, communities of color hardest hit by debt

(l-r) Joyce Ester, Kent Pekel, Dean Barbara Butt Williams
(l-r) Joyce Ester, Kent Pekel, Dean Barbara Butts Williams

Minnesota is fifth among U.S. “high-debt states” where college student debt upon graduation on average has surpassed $30,000, says The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). The 2014 project student debt report that TICAS released last November points out that in 2013 seven in 10 college graduates from public and private nonprofit colleges owe an average of $28,400 in student loans, up two percent from 2012.

Minnesota 2013 college graduates loan debt is $30,894. Among state public colleges, Winona State grads had the highest at $33,610, and Minnesota-Crookston was lowest at $27,311. College of St. Scholastica ($43,113) tops the state private institutions while Macalester College ($21,939) was the lowest, says the nonprofit California-based organization.

According to a United Negro College Fund (UNCF) fact sheet, Federal Student Loans increased seven percent (54 percent to 61 percent) while grants decreased seven percent (46 percent to 39 percent) over the period 1992 to 2011.

Conversely, 60 percent of Black college students qualify for pell grants. These grants in 1980 covered 77 percent “of the cost of attendance” at four-year public schools, and 36 percent at private institutions. Those figures in 2012-13 were 31 percent and 14 percent respectively.

“Paying back [student] loans should get everybody’s attention,” said UNCF President-CEO Michael Lomax recently at a February education luncheon at Medtronic headquarters. He moderated a panel that discussed college “affordability and accessibility.”

The panelists included Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller, Search Institute President-CEO Kent Pekel, Normandale Community College President Joyce Ester, Capella University Business School Dean Barbara Butts Williams, and Dan Solomon of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s office.

“We are looking at a crisis for paying for college,” stated Lomax. “[This] bears down the hardest on students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are the first in their family to go to college. This is a critical conversation that comes at a critical time.”

“We are seeing segmentation by income and race of opportunity in the United States,” said Pogemiller.

Ester said parents should be getting college financial aid information as early as when their child reaches middle school.

Sen. Franken believes that Congress should be finding ways to make college more affordable as well as making it “easier for folk to pay back their student loans,” said Solomon.

When an audience member asked the panel to define “affordability,” Butts Williams said, “Affordability means time as well as cost and accessibility to education. We’re less concerned about credit hours and time and really focused on learning outcomes.”

Added Pogemiller, “If your only choice is to go to the lowest-cost institution, even if that’s not your interest, and you can only go to a two-year college, that’s a problem.”

“We should be getting information to the families,” said Ester afterwards to the MSR. “We need to be more intentional about that, and we need to be out in the community. It is not good enough to just send the information out with the kids and the moms and dads don’t understand it. We have to work with the adults. We need to make sure that education remains affordable and accessible for all individuals who want to attend college, who want to get a higher education.”

Pekel added that colleges must use community organizations and others to help disseminate information as well. “That should be the starting point for working with those parents on [college] decisions with the kids. African American families are the most connected to community, and we’re not leveraging that. The African American community has extraordinary strength in its family and community connections.”

Lomax suggested “a comprehensive higher-education strategy to educate and graduate students” along with finding ways to keep college graduates from being burdened with debt “that no first job can repay. Instead we have a grab-bag of programs that is…becoming more weighted down with loans, not grants.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.