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College loan aid examined as way to help Greater Minnesota

ST. PAUL — Molly O'Neill loves being back home, even though her home lacks running water.

It is just that with $500 monthly college loan payments, she said that she cannot afford plumbing in her Lutsen home in far northeastern Minnesota.

"This is a problem that is not going away in the foreseeable future," she told members of a Senate committee Tuesday, May 7, with the possibility of paying off loans until she is 48, which is 15 years distant.

"I did move back to my hometown and I love it there," 33-year-old O'Neill said, even though she cannot afford everything she may want.

Bills making their way through the Minnesota Legislature could help, O'Neill said. Bills by Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, and Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, would forgive some college loans to new graduates who locate in Greater Minnesota. Both could be wrapped into overall higher education funding bills.

Eken said the bills would pay up to $3,000 a year for five years. Up to 327,000 greater Minnesota students could be helped, he said.

Minnesota is third in the country in the number of people with student debts, Lien said.

If graduates get the aid, Lien added, they would spend money and boost the economy.

Grand Marais Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux is 11 years out of college but still paying student loans. There are too few people his age in his community, he said.

"We in Grand Marais are struggling to find young professionals," the mayor said.

Part of the reason greater Minnesota does not attract young people is the low pay they face there, Arrowsmith-DeCoux said. That, like O'Neill said, can drag out college loan repayment over decades.

However, he added, a University of Minnesota Morris study shows "young people are desiring to move back to their hometowns."

"A lot of time those people just don't have those job availabilities or the income availabilities that they have in an urban area..." Lien said. "The opportunities just aren't there."

Other bills are designed to help veterinarians who set up shop in Greater Minnesota.

Rural Minnesota is short of livestock veterinarians, the Senate Higher Education Committee heard Tuesday. Like other students, recent veterinarian school graduates have trouble paying back loans.

Dean Trevor Ames of the University of Minnesota veterinary school said all health care graduates face repayment issues, but it is worse for vets because in general they are paid less.

He said he supports legislation to forgive up to $15,000 in veterinarian student loans over five years.

Similar programs have been tried twice before, but just a year at a time. Ames said a permanent program would attract more veterinarians to Greater Minnesota.

The bill requires a veterinarian to treat livestock at least half of his or her time on the job and would have to remain in greater Minnesota at least five years.

Thom Petersen of the Minnesota Farmers Union said that he heard from three county fairs and an auction barn last year that could not find veterinarians to check livestock. The auction facility was threatened with closing before it finally found a vet.

Overall, Petersen said, "we hear a lot from our farmers that there is a shortage in certain areas of large animal veterinarians." Added Dr. Tom Hagerty of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association: "Today it is almost impossible to find a recent graduate, or anyone, to come out into the rural part of Minnesota to practice."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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