State and federal lawmakers met with students from Minnesota colleges and universities in a roundtable discussion on college affordability Monday at the University of Minnesota.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Gov. Mark Dayton, University President Eric Kaler and Minnesota Office of Higher Education director Larry Pogemiller met with students from private and public schools in both the University and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems.
As tuition rises, students are faced with the choice of taking out loans or working to pay for school — or both.
Last year, the average University student left school with $27,000 in loan debt — up nearly 70 percent since 2003. Tuition hikes also mean the federal Pell Grant covers less of the costs of attending school. Furthermore, without congressional action, a 3.4 percent interest rate on federal Stafford loans is set to expire in July, upping the interest rate to 6.8 percent.
Youth studies sophomore Rahel Theodros started working to help her single mom pay for expenses when she was 16. She said she made more money as a waitress than she does now as a program assistant at YouthCARE — a job that better aligns with her career goals and interests.
Wages at part-time and work-study jobs aren’t keeping pace with the rising cost of tuition, she said, leaving students with difficult choices.
“It’s unworkable. Eight dollars an hour to work multiple hours a day is just not adding up,” Theodros said.
Camille Morse Nicholson, a Hamline University student, expressed disappointment that tuition hikes at the University of Minnesota meant that the difference in paying for school at the publically funded University versus Hamline was less than $2,000.
“I see that I’m struggling to get to the middle class, and my parents are struggling to stay there because not only are they burdened by their own debts, but they’re burdened by mine now,” she said.
Kris Wright, the director of student finance at the University, said the complexity of student loans, the difficulty of comparing aid across schools and financial literacy are problems for students.
“These are heroic stories, but that means we have a generation of students who have to be heroes,” Franken said.
“It always helps me when I’m talking with my colleagues to bring back first-hand knowledge of students’ experiences,” said Franken, who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee in the U.S. Senate.