Walz, students talk affordable education

A new era for student loans offers some relief to Riverland Community College students who face rising tuition and slimming programs.

First District Congressman Tim Walz visited the Austin campus Friday to talk with school officials and students about the recent overhaul of the student loan program.

The revamp shifts the responsibility for making cut-rate student loans from private banks to the government, bringing a close to federal subsidies and guarantees previously given to private lenders.

The defeat for the banking lobby was signed into law in March, ending their role as middle men, and cutting program costs to channel extra money to the neediest students.

“It’s absolutely crucial right now,” Walz said of the legislation. “[It’s about] making college affordable for the middle class, and for all Americans.”

Studies show that the government-operated program will be less costly, freeing up money to increase Pell Grants for low-income students.

Riverland alum Krista Olson, who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in business at Bemidji State University and working in Riverland’s business office, told Walz Friday that she financed her education with student loans and Pell Grants.

“It completely changed my life,” she said of going back to school in her 30s.

Olson decided to go to school when she was raising twins, in diapers at the time, and she had lost three jobs in one year.

“I was at my wits end,” she said.

Walz said the new program will save the government more than $60 billion, as well as make financial aid more attainable for all students.

“You will never fix the economy, you will never grow the workforce, if you don’t put these people into college,” he said.

Riverland financial aid officer Patty Hemann said she thinks the legislation benefits students, though aid offices may need more training to work with the new process.

“I see the additional Pell Grants as very necessary,” she said. “For some students, it will barely cover the tuition increase.”

Students at Riverland Community College could see their tuition and fees go up $223 this fall if the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities trustees pass their proposed budget later this month.

Riverland president Dr. Terry Leas said that with declining state aid, colleges are passing more of the burden onto the students. The school is trying to attain more grant and gift money to keep tuition down, he added.

Riverland employee and student Jose Riveria attended Friday’s discussion and told the congressman that he feels the tools are available for low-income workers to seek more training and increase their earning potential.

Riveria, originally of Honduras, went back to school after his hours as a public school success coach were cut in half.

Though he had two years of school under his belt from Honduras, he had to start over in the US system, he said.

After graduating, Riveria hopes to work with high school immigrant populations to help them navigate through post-secondary programs.

“Most of these students don’t know how these things work,” he said. “They finish high school and then they think the should go right to work… there is funding there for them to go to school and really contribute, but they don’t know it.”