With skyrocketing higher education costs, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is pushing legislation to make a college education more affordable and drive down student debt.

Klobuchar joined U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., higher education administrators and students at Hennepin Technical College on Wednesday to discuss college costs and a Senate Democratic proposal aimed at helping students and recent graduates weighed down by debt loads.

“Things have gotten worse and worse and worse,” Klobuchar said. “In the end, this is really about our future.”

The measure would expand the federal Pell Grant program, let students refinance student loans at a lower interest rate and help make two years of community college tuition-free.

To pay for the plan, Klobuchar and Baldwin want to close tax loopholes and increase taxes for the highest earners, proposals staunchly opposed by Republicans in Washington.

Minnesota ranks fifth nationally in average debt among college graduates, according to the Project on Student Debt.

In 2014, the median debt load for Minnesotans with a bachelor’s degree was $27,296, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Nationwide, almost 70 percent of graduates from nonprofit institutions in 2014 had student loan debt.

As higher education costs have increased, the burden of paying for school has shifted to students, said Merrill Irving Jr., Hennepin Technical College’s president.

Baldwin said 40 million Americans have more than $1 trillion in student debt, surpassing credit card and auto loan debt.

Education leaders and students say high costs and debt loads scare students away from lower earning fields — like education and the nonprofit field — in favor of careers with higher wages so students can pay off their loans.

“A lot of students are scared off by that huge number … they can’t imagine ever being able to pay that off,” said Elsbeth Howe, executive director of the Minnesota State University Student Association.

Kari Cooper, a 2014 Bemidji State University graduate who works in the nonprofit sector, said her $40,000 in student loan debt and crushing monthly payments are preventing her from being able to afford to start a family or make larger purchases like a car or house.

“Thinking about having a family or children someday seems totally out of the question if I can barely afford to get myself through day after day,” she said. “I’m just one of many. ”


Christopher Aadland is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.