The new Minnesota student debt refinancing program unveiled Thursday at Winona State University is the kind of government initiative that’s easy to cheer. It promises to put more money each month in tens of thousands of young adult pockets, giving them a financial boost and the state’s economy a stimulative shot — without costing taxpayers an additional dime.
That neat trick comes courtesy of the 2014 Legislature — on a bipartisan vote, we hasten to add — and creative thinkers at the Office of Higher Education. They took advantage of resources already available in the 30-year-old State Education Loan Fund (SELF) to create a student debt refinancing opportunity for qualifying Minnesota residents.
Though the opportunity is limited to creditworthy Minnesota residents — or those with creditworthy co-signers — who have completed certificate, diploma or degree programs, it ought to have wide reach. (One need not have graduated from a Minnesota college to qualify. More details are available at www.selfrefi.state.mn.us.) State higher education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller estimated that 50 percent to 60 percent of Minnesota student loan borrowers could benefit from SELF Refi. Some can reduce their monthly payments by several hundred dollars, he said.
Praiseworthy as this initiative is, it likely won’t reach the Minnesotans whose student loan debts are most burdensome — those who borrowed but did not graduate and therefore lack the earning power needed to comfortably service their debt. Helping borrowers in those circumstances would require a larger financial foundation than SELF affords, Pogemiller said, and enlarging it may be a job for the federal government.
Perhaps, but it was the reduction in state support for higher education in the previous decade that made tuition climb at Minnesota’s public colleges and universities. That led to Minnesota student debt loads ranking third-highest in the nation in 2012. Since then, with the help of more robust state appropriations, average student loan debt in Minnesota has fallen to fifth place among the states at $31,579 for graduates with four-year degrees. While that’s a positive trend, it’s still too high for a state whose economic wagon is pulled by its well-educated workforce.
The 2016 Legislature has a chance to do more. A state income tax credit for student loan payments was approved by the state House in 2015 and will be under consideration when the tax conference committee resumes its work this year. Notably, its sponsor is House Taxes Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston. At an estimated cost to the state treasury of $65 million per year, it wouldn’t come cheap. But with a shortage of educated workers on the horizon in a number of professions and 70 percent of recent Minnesota college grads shouldering debt, a tax break directed at them could be one of the smarter tax moves the 2016 Legislature could make.