By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Students from Gustavus Adolphus, Minnesota State, Bethany and South Central College all told variations of the same story: The money coming in is less than the money going out, debt is piling up, but they’re hopeful that their investment in higher education will pay off in the end.
The message was no surprise to Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Minnesota college students are graduating with an average debt load of about $30,000 — third highest in the nation.
Pogemiller is planning to visit communities across Minnesota this winter and spring, partly to pitch Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget and its $240 million in proposed higher spending for student grants and for the state’s colleges.
But he spent most of his Thursday visit to Minnesota State University — the second stop on his tour — listening to students.
Phil Ochs told Pogemiller about how he’s handling the tuition and fees at South Central College in North Mankato. Ochs said he gets out of bed at 6 a.m., is at school by 7 a.m., goes to his full-time job at a book publishing warehouse after classes and finishes work at 11 p.m.
“Oh my gosh!” Pogemiller said.
“I’m kind of busy,” said Ochs, who is in the machinist program at SCC. “And I’ve been doing that since I started school.”
Ochs, a Nicollet resident, said he received no government grants last quarter, and he doesn’t want to give up the income from the job he’s held for several years when he knows the college bills will keep coming.
“There’s more than a few of us in our shop alone that are paying out of pocket or with loans,” he said.
Even working 40 hours a week while a full-time student, Ochs figures to be contending with about $15,000 in debt when he finishes the two-year program at SCC.
Pogemiller noted the common opinion that college students’ debt problems stem partly from living large.
“Are you living high off the hog?” he asked.
David Schieler, a communications studies major at MSU, described the not-so-lavish condition of the apartment he shares with other students before mentioning the $280 textbook he was required to purchase for a biology class.
“That’s a lavish textbook,” Schieler joked. “I guess I could have put that into a flat-screen TV, not gone to class.”
Evan Oman, a senior math major at Bethany Lutheran College, applauded Dayton’s proposal to put $80 million into the state grant program, which he was eligible for during his first two years in college.
Dayton’s plan increases grants by an average of $300 for the 100,000 students in Minnesota who receive them. It would also expand the program by more than 5,000 additional students, many of them from families with incomes above $60,000 a year.
Oman said he’s been fortunate to get help from his family with college costs, but he has friends whose parents have higher incomes and provide no assistance to their kids by choice or because of financial struggles of their own.
“What your parents earn really doesn’t say how much they’re going to help out,” Oman said. “... Obviously not an easy thing to fix, but it is something that could be improved.”
Muresuk Mena, a first-generation college student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, said the state grant program has been crucial to him — reducing both the financial and emotional stress of college.
“It’s very important to me. It’s been a big help,” Mena said of the state aid, adding that financial worries afflict many students. “... A lot of times, that’s a big burden.”
The fate of Dayton’s proposed boost in state grants — along with $80 million increases for both the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system — will be determined through budget negotiations in the current legislative session.
And lawmakers are faced with the same dilemma as college students: the money coming in is less than the money going out, debt is piling up and tough choices need to be made about when and where to make investments that will pay off in the future.
Dayton’s budget increases higher education funding by a larger percentage than any other part of the state budget, which is facing a shortfall of $1.1 billion even with no additional spending initiatives. The Democratic governor’s solution is a spectrum of tax hikes ranging from increased income taxes for wealthier Minnesotans to a broadening of the sales tax to services.
“His thinking is we do have to raise some revenue,” said Pogemiller, who thinks the Democratic-controlled Legislature will agree even if they disagree about the types of taxes to increase.
And he’s hopeful that much of the increase for college students and colleges will survive in competition with other spending priorities of lawmakers.
“This is a long-term investment in our economy and human capital,” said Pogemiller, noting that the money for institutions is tightly aimed at research, tuition freezes, equipment upgrades and development of internship/apprenticeship programs for students. “He’s not just trying to grow institutions.”