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The burden of debt

Proposals address skyrocketing New Hampshire student debt, highest in the nation

By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN

PLYMOUTH — Justin Siewierski expects to graduate from Plymouth State University next year owing $25,000 to be repaid over a decade.

He's getting off cheap.

The Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access and Success found that 2015 graduates of New Hampshire colleges and universities had an average student debt load of $36,101, highest in the nation.

A growing recognition of this financial burden can be found in pending legislative proposals and in the governor's budget plan.

Meantime, people like Siewierski will need to find a way to stretch paychecks on entry-level jobs to cover college loans.

03-16 Justin Siewierski"Coming out of school, my payments will be about $250 a month," said Siewierski, 20. "It will be like buying a brand new car, except I won't have a brand new car."

In fact, a car is one of the things he'll need to buy when he graduates with a degree in English and a teaching certificate.

Money he earns editing his university's newspaper and working as a part-time sports broadcaster help pay his college expenses, which are about $23,000, including housing and a meal plan.

Senate Bill 228, pending in the state Legislature, seeks to retain college graduates in the state through four annual $1,000 awards to offset student loan debt.

Also, Sen. Dan Innis' Senate Bill 41 would provide grants for student debt relief for skilled technology workers who stay working in this sector in New Hampshire for at least three years.

Innis, R-New Castle, said that under his bill, the state would provide $2,500, to be matched by the employer.

"This helps the tech sector attract new employees," Innis said. "There are 3,000 openings now in our technology sector. It also helps young people to be attracted to or to stay in our state."

He sympathizes with students facing student loan debt.

"It's rough," said Innis, who is a professor at the University of New Hampshire. "I think any relief we could provide to students is a good thing."

In his budget proposal, Gov. Chris Sununu sets aside $5 million in a debt assistance program for nurses, care workers and clinicians fighting the state's substance abuse crisis. He also designated $5 million for a scholarship program and $10 million for community college infrastructure.

New Hampshire is last nationally in per capita support for higher education, according to a report by Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit organization. Lack of state support contributes to high tuition.

"Tuition is high at Keene, Plymouth and UNH," Innis said. "It's pretty simple. It takes money to run a university and you've got to find the money somewhere."

Tom Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council, said the state also has some of the highest community college tuition rates in the country.

Nationally, tuition and fees at public universities have quadrupled over the last 40 years. Student borrowing has skyrocketed from $24 billion in 1990-91 to $110 billion in 2012-13, according to the Pew Research Center.

"I think debt is hugely burdensome for students, not only in New Hampshire but across the country," Horgan said. "There are lots of studies showing students taking on this debt and not being able to buy a house or do the things you or I could do when we graduated."

03-16 Brett AllardA typical home mortgage lasts 30 years, and that's just how long Brett Allard expects to be making payments on his college loans.

Allard is a Plymouth State University graduate who went on to complete his law degree at the University of New Hampshire. He works for Wescott Law in Laconia.

High student debt loads are a given among many of his college friends.

"It's not overly discussed, in my experience," he said.

A successful law career could be lucrative enough to pay off a fair amount of debt.

But Horgan notes that all college degrees have value, and are typically an excellent investment. 

"Over the span of a career you will make a million dollars more than someone with just a high school diploma and you'll be unemployed at just a fraction of the rate of someone with just a high school diploma," he said.

"Studies also show your health will be better, your children will be more likely to go to college and you'll be happier in your work."

To access an interactive map on student debt and information on how to contact your congressional representative or senator, see https://lendedu.com/blog/congress-and-student-debt.

03-16 college Report Card

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And what about the future?

College expert Dr. Robert Ronstadt, or simply Dr. Bob, as he is known, has helped many families in the Lakes Region find ways to pay for college without going broke. Despite the current situation, he remains optimistic.

Dr.RobertRonstadt"There's no place for New Hampshire to go but up in terms of its dismal student debt ranking."

He sees a rejuvenated New Hampshire just a few years from now.

"The year is 2034," he said. "I'm dead, but life is good in the Granite State. Somewhere I'm smiling because The Laconia Daily Sun has just reported that New Hampshire leads the nation in providing low-cost, debt-free college educations for its residents. From 50th to No. 1. Gov. Sununu VII is elated. He says, 'Everything changed in 2025 when state government finally got out of the liquor business. The lucrative sale of its liquor assets, plus the growth of liquor licenses tripled the yearly revenues the state used to get from its state liquor stores. We used part of that revenue gain to increase our support of health and education in the state. We've seen real improvements in higher education. Our best kids stay in-state to go to college. More remain here after graduation. Because they aren't laden with debt, they are starting new businesses and buying first homes at faster rates than ever. We now see growing numbers of college graduates who just a few years ago could never have afforded a college education. It's great because they pay higher real estate and other taxes. And they tend to vote Republican.'" Yes, being 1st, rather than 50th, is good.