The trend of tuition replacing state money for higher-education funding was the topic of discussion Thursday when Minnesota Office of Higher Education director Larry Pogemiller visited Winona State University to hear from students and administration.

Pogemiller was joined by state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, and Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona. A decade ago, the three said, Minnesota funded two-thirds of higher education while tuition covered the final third.

Those numbers have since flipped, they said.

And student debt is rising along with tuition at public universities. Pogemiller said students are now borrowing an average of $29,000 to pay for college. The state is ranked fifth in the country for student debt, he said.

“We should be very concerned with this,” Pogemiller said. “It’s a bad combination right now.”

WSU graduating senior and student senate president Jack Linehan spoke to Pogemiller and the legislators about his and fellow students’ struggles with managing debt and college costs.

He works to help cover the costs of his education, and related a story of a classmate who had to partially pay for a study-abroad trip with credit cards she’s now working to pay off.

“The biggest component is education,” he said. “I don’t fully know myself how much I have in student loans. It’s kind of something in the future for a lot of us.”

Pelowski asked Linehan what he would like to see changed.

Increased funding for education would be ideal, Linehan said, but added that he realized it might not be feasible in the near future. He said the state should expand grant and scholarship opportunities.

“This has been a concern of mine,” Miller said of student debt. His wife, Janel, worked while studying at Minnesota State University-Mankato, but even with her job, she graduated with about $30,000 in debt, he said.

“I hope we can start to restore funding (for higher education) as we move forward,” Miller said.

The Office of Higher Education provides students with financial aid programs and information. It also conducts research, collects data and analyzes enrollment, financial aid and financing trends at the state’s post-secondary institutions.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has declared April “Financial Literacy Month,” dedicating the second week of the month to higher-education issues such as college affordability and student debt.

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