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As student debt rises, higher education in Montana remains a relatively good deal compared with other states. The next legislative session – and the legislators who serve in it – will play a huge role in determining just how good a deal it is in the future.

That’s why a new statewide campaign launched just this month is working to bring the subject of student debt to the forefront of legislative campaigns and, next, the 2015 Legislature. Meanwhile, a national study out this week from a personal finance website points to several areas where Montana might make improvements – and offer an even better deal to prospective students.

WalletHub’s report on the “Best and Worst States for Student Debt” (read it at wallethub.com/edu/best-and-worst-states-for-student-debt/7520/) gave Montana an overall rank of 14th place after scoring each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. That’s not bad, but neither is it particularly outstanding for our region. Consider that Utah, Wyoming and North Dakota got the top three slots, respectively. Maine and Rhode Island came in 50th and 51st place.

The study arrived at these rankings after analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Institute for College Access & Success, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other such sources on seven key metrics, including average student debt and student debt as a percentage of income. The report also looked at the percentage of loans considered past-due or in default, as well as the percentage of loan carriers older than 50.

The good news is that Montana ranks favorably in at least a couple of important areas: its rate of unemployed residents ages 24-34 (seventh place) and for the low number of student loans that are past-due or in default (10th place). Not so good was the news that Montana comes in 25th place for student debt as a percentage of income, or that it ranks 27th for the number of loan borrowers 50 years or older.

Still, even the bad news doesn’t sound so bad. Middle of the pack is still better than being at the back.

Unfortunately, these rankings obscure the fact that Montana is running with a pack that is seeing dramatic increases in the cost of higher education each year. Earlier this month another report showed that tuition at four-year colleges in Montana has doubled since 2000, making the average student debt load in Montana these days a whopping $27,000.

That’s too large a financial burden for new graduates just entering the work force. And it’s a big part of the reason why, according to WalletHub, “nearly 11 percent of all student loan debt (is) in delinquency or default.” Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported in late summer that the nation’s total outstanding student loan debt topped $1.12 trillion by the end of June – an increase of $124 billion from the year before.

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In Montana, the student debt load is increasing because the state is picking up a smaller portion of the tab, according to the study out this month from the Alliance for a Just Society. Montana covered more than $5,100 per student in 2008; that shrank to less than $4,300 in 2013, according to the report.

With the idea of pushing the state to cover more of the cost of higher education, the Alliance for a Just Society joined with the Montana Organizing Project and the Forward Montana Foundation to form a campaign that will make student debt reform a key legislative issue.

It should be. Large student loan debts delay a Montana graduates’ ability to buy a home, afford a car or make a living in their hometown. The state needs to discuss new ideas for keeping tuition affordable so that every Montana student can pursue a college education.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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