– University of Minnesota junior Geoff Dittberner has resorted to a steady diet of ketchup-covered rice and meatless spaghetti to make ends meet.

Though Dittberner works 20 to 30 hours per week as an office assistant on campus to help cover his tuition and living expenses, he’s already racked up $30,000 in student loan debt. Now he’s banking on tightening his belt a bit more.

Dittberner is among nearly 200,000 Minnesota college students who will see interest rates double on future federal loans after Congress and the White House failed to reach a compromise to keep the rates low before today’s deadline.

“Deadlines don’t mean what they used to,” said Thomas Scram, a Winona State University graduate headed to the University of Minnesota Law School in the fall. “The people that end up getting hurt are the students.”

Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Congress could still strike a deal to halt the increase that would be retroactive on any loans approved after July 1, but until then students and their families have to assume that they face a future of much higher loan payments.

University of Minnesota mathematics major Susan Eckstein isn’t counting on a deal being reached soon. She’s already saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans, half of which are federally subsidized.

“Every day I think about it,” said Eckstein, who works a retail job at Target Field and baby-sits in the offseason to help pay her way through school.

A Minnesota Office of Higher Education report shows that Minnesota students who’ve taken out loans graduate with an average of nearly $30,000 in debt. Dittberner, a strategic communications major, will top that figure soon, and with nearly a year to go before graduation day he’s already fretting about making payments. “Every additional dollar that I have to [borrow] creates more uncertainty,” he said.

With the prime interest rate currently at 3.25 percent, most members of Congress agree that student loan rates should remain lower than 6.8 percent. But they’re divided, mostly along party lines, on how to reach that goal. Republicans want to let the rates fluctuate with the markets every year and use the proceeds for deficit reduction. Democrats prefer to cap how fast and how high the rates can rise.

“It’s almost as if they don’t remember that they were in school at one point,” said Minnesota State University-Mankato senior Michael Ramirez, 28.

As vice chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association, Ramirez has worked with student organizations from across the country to fend off a rate increase. Last summer, facing political pressure, Congress extended the 3.4 percent rate for another year. That didn’t happen this time around.

“It’s almost telling us that we’re not worth the time,” said Ramirez, a recreation, parks and leisure services major who’s already saddled with $20,000 in debt.

‘Disheartening’ for students

With so much outstanding student debt, recent graduates are having trouble contributing to the U.S. economy. Several Minnesota students say they’ll likely put off starting families and buying homes and other big-ticket items in order to whittle down their debt.

To save money, Scram finished his studies in three years but still accumulated $20,000 in loans. By the time he’s out of law school, the 20-year-old could face close to $90,000 in debt.

Students are “aware that they’re going to have to pay the price for it,” Scram said. “Our lives are in the balance.”

If Congress doesn’t act to lower the rates, Metro State University student Shannon Green will consider putting off graduation. Already living paycheck to paycheck to cover rent, grocery bill and gas, Green said she’d scale back her course load and work more to avoid amassing more debt. She has piled up $25,000 in loans, with another $6,000 pending for next year.

Dan Gerdes, a Hamline University junior, is eligible for $5,500 in Stafford loans next fall. If the rate increase endures, he plans to refuse the government aid and opt for private loans instead. The 20-year-old said he works two part-time jobs and runs his own lawn-care business to help cover his college costs.

“It’s disheartening for me,” said Gerdes, who is studying history and public service. “We shouldn’t be charging students more for taking out money to go to college; we should be assisting them.”


Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell