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Don Davis, Published October 13 2009

Minnesota students plead for college affordability

MINNEAPOLIS – Paul Strain said his family supports his college career, at least emotionally.

But when it comes to money, he told U.S. Sen. Al Franken Monday, he needs to look for federally supported programs. In his third year at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, the future medical school student said he already has $30,000 of debt.

Strain, a former International Falls resident whose parents live in Duluth, said that if he becomes a doctor, he may not have trouble paying off his student loans, but someone who becomes a teacher would struggle.

That is just what Democrat Franken wanted to hear as he began a statewide tour of college campuses to pick up ammunition to help him promote the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act. The bill, which the House passed last month, would kick banks out of the student loan business and force higher education institutions to provide the federally funded loans directly to students beginning next year.

Franken said the measure would save $87 billion in the next 10 years by eliminating bank profits from the transactions.

Most of the savings would be plowed back into higher education, Franken said, with nearly half being used to increase the popular low-interest Pell grant program.

The bill would not change how the University of Minnesota handles loans, President Robert Bruininks said, because its campuses have provided loans directly to students for more than a decade.

Franken said he will visit several college campus in the next two weeks.

He said allowing banks to make loans amounts to “corporate welfare.” He said few bank workers would lose jobs if the bill passes, as he expects to happen later this year, but bank profits would shrink.

Most Republicans oppose the proposal, saying it amounts to federal government takeover of a private business function.

“Who should benefit” from federal money set aside for student loans? Franken asked. “I think it should be the students.”

A hand-picked group of students met with Franken on the Minneapolis campus, telling him stories about their huge loan payments.

Christina Brakken-Thal, from the western Twin Cities suburbs, said some fellow medical students may face $200,000 loans, which will force them to take more lucrative jobs as specialists instead of becoming family doctors.

Bemidji native Ryan Kennedy said he avoided loans as an undergraduate, but now as a graduate student he expects to need them. And he does not expect to earn big checks because he plans to go into the low-paying public service field.

Kennedy suggested that Congress look into more programs that allow students in some fields to avoid paying back loans.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com