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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published June 14 2013

Heitkamp looking for ideas to address student debt

GRAND FORKS – U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp told University of North Dakota staff and students Friday that she graduated with a bachelor’s degree with less than $3,000 in debt, a figure relatively unheard of among today’s students.

“I could get a summer job and pay half of my college tuition,” she said. “Who can say that anymore?”

Heitkamp, D-N.D., who graduated from UND, held a discussion at the university to help address what she called “the single issue that will unravel the entire economy if we don’t fix it.”

She was listening to public comments about keeping education affordable for students. Unless Congress acts before July 1, interest rates for new subsidized Stafford loans are set to double to 6.8 percent.

With national student debt exceeding $1 trillion and 50-year-olds still paying off debt they incurred in their 20s, the Republican proposal to link student loan interest rates to market rates without a cap is not the answer because rates will only continue to climb, Heitkamp said.

Earlier this month, Heitkamp voted with other Democrats to support a two-year extension of the current rate of 3.4 percent.

“For years, the federal government has made money off the backs of students” and that can’t continue, she said.

UND President Robert Kelley said the issue is one he thinks about all of the time. College administrators face the challenge of battling rising costs without sacrificing education, he said.

“We want to provide you with the opportunity of pursuing your choices, but we have to find ways to do it within a reasonable way so that it’s affordable for you,” he said.

Several students shared their own financial situations with Heitkamp, who also had help from Pell grants and student loans during her academic career.

Kyle Thorson, marketing coordinator for a financial wellness program at UND, talked about a student who graduated with a music degree and $104,000 in loan debt. The first-generation student, who had taken out private loans, now has to pay $1,500 a month, he said.

“A music major is a wonderful thing, but the reality is you’re not going to make probably more than $30,000 right out of college,” he said. “If you want to talk about crippling payments, that’s it.”

Thorson and former students such as Lacey Erickson, who represented UND’s public affairs and Grand Forks’ Young Professionals, suggested that financial literacy was vital for incoming students, who should understand how much debt they’ll take on with certain majors and how they plan to pay it back after college.

Erickson told Heitkamp she’d worked four jobs during college and somehow graduated in four years, though she “worked really, really hard to get there.”

“I wanted to get done,” she said, or otherwise she’d have to pay $8,000 more in tuition.

Heitkamp said that long-term student debt has caused people to delay starting a business, limited their ability to buy homes and even have kids because they can’t afford it.

“You are delaying your life to pay for your student loans, and that’s not good for this country,” she said.