A roundtable brought stories of deep debt in pursuit of a diploma.
Jinaa Lane is a college student. She's also a single mother who works three part-time jobs. In one, she mentors fellow St. Catherine University students on managing money and sees that many of them, too, are accumulating hefty debt despite a heavy workload.
"The question is always: 'How are we going to make it?'" she said. "Is it even worth it?"
Lane was one of a dozen students who told their stories Monday to local officials and a U.S. senator during a roundtable on college affordability at the University of Minnesota. Together, their tales underscored the increasing indebtedness of students, many of whom are turning to parents, private loans and long work weeks to pay the escalating cost of college.
A University of Minnesota sophomore who is "extremely overwhelmed" by the work, school and activities she needs to pay her bills and build a resumé. A Metropolitan State student who lives 200 miles from his children to complete his degree. A Normandale Community College student who joined the National Guard to avoid the student loan debt that plagued his mother and left them homeless.
"I'd love to think that, wow, it was really hard to find this group of students with these hard stories," Sen. Al Franken said. "But I know if you throw a rock around here, you'll hit a student with the exact same story."
Student loan debt is swelling, and Minnesota students are among the most indebted. The state's college students who graduated in 2010 and borrowed had an average of $29,058 in student loan debt -- the fourth-highest average in the country, according to an annual report by the Project on Student Debt. Minnesota also ranked fifth in the proportion of students with debt, at 71 percent. Those numbers do not include students at for-profit universities.
The average debt load at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus is closer to $ 27,500 -- a number that is "too high," said U President Eric Kaler.
A coming cost
Several students bemoaned a change that could soon make some federal student loans pricier. The interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans, taken out by millions of low- and middle-income undergraduates, is set to double from the current 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
"There are a lot of people out there who are making some very difficult decisions who are not happy with walking out of school with $27,000 to $40,000 in debt -- with 6.8 percent interest on top of that," student Nicholas Alexander said. "You might be able to get a credit card that's got a better interest rate."
Franken pointed out that he has co-sponsored a bill that would prevent the rate hike. In response, a couple students nodded and a few breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Thank you," one said.
But many key Republicans say the 3.4 percent rate is too low and was the result of 2007 legislation that intended the rate to be temporary. Keeping the rate at 3.4 percent will cost $5.9 billion annually, according to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
"We now face the exact predicament we expected," said committee spokeswoman Jennifer Allen by e-mail. "We must either allow interest rates to rise on student loans, or stick taxpayers with another multibillion-dollar bill."
Franken and Kaler were joined Monday by Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, and Gov. Mark Dayton, who told the group that "on behalf of my generation, I should apologize to all of you."
"We tell you your education is important, which it is, that you should get as much of it as possible, which you should," he said, "that it will benefit you and society and the world, but we're not going to help you pay for it. It's a profound breakdown of the inter-generational compact."
Lane, 38, argues that state and federal grants aren't keeping up with the cost of college. "It feels as if every year, there's a question of 'Is it going to be decreased or possibly cut?' and students are freaking out," she told the group, "and I don't blame them." In order to pay for the costs beyond tuition -- including food, clothes and child care -- Lane took out a private loan, an act that made her cry.
After Monday's meeting, she traded car sagas with Alexander, who attends Metro State in St. Paul and shares a car with his sister, a student at the University of Minnesota. Lane depends on her car to bring her daughter to school and herself to work. First the brakes went, then her hood flew up into her windshield, shattering it.
Alexander, 37, laughed. "It sometimes feels like life is a circus," he said, his hands juggling imaginary balls.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168