By Kristin Miller
Election Day is Nov. 4, and for incumbent U.S. Representative Collin Peterson (DFL), the election could mark his 14th term serving Minnesota Congressional District 7.
While he rounds out his campaign, Peterson is discussing higher education and the issues which will become priorities if he is elected back into office.
High on Peterson’s list of goals for the next legislative session is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. First passed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, the act aims to improve higher education standards and increase affordability.
It has been reauthorized several times in the intervening decades, and lawmakers are again faced with updating the provisions of the legislation and passing it through the House and Senate.
“We need to get the reauthorization done,” Peterson said, adding that a divided House may make that difficult.
“There’s a lot of good things being talked about that would happen in that reauthorization, but the Republicans have not wanted to bring it up,” he said.
Peterson also said he plans to continue collaborations with other lawmakers concerning the reauthorization if he is re-elected in November.
“I’ve been working with Senator Franken … and although I’m not on the committee, I wholly support it,” Peterson said.
If reauthorized, the majority of the new provisions to the legislation would deal with making the financial aid process simpler, more accessible, and more transparent for students.
Carolyn Zehren, director of scholarship and financial aid at MSUM, said that in the past three years, they have already seen progress on that front, with the process of applying for financial aid becoming more streamlined and easier for both students and parents.
“It’s been far more manageable for students to apply,” she said, cautioning that the real issue now is how to equitably distribute what she called “scarce resources” from the federal government that are appropriated for higher education.
One area of concern for Zehren is the Federal Perkins Loan Program, which some lawmakers in Washington are considering for elimination.
She said that if the program is phased out, “we’ll lose one of our tools” for helping students afford an education.
Peterson said he will continue to support means of making higher education more affordable for students. He referenced federal aid including student loans and Pell grants, as well as working with the financial sector to refinance interest rates on those loans.
“I have certainly been a supporter of trying to keep student loans and Pell Grants to keep up with the costs of higher education,” he said. “We’ve got to change so that these student loans and interest rates are more in-line with the marketplace, and for students to be able to refinance … It doesn’t make any sense that these are basically the only loans in America that you can’t refinance.”
Zehren had a different take on the issue, stating that increased financial literacy, rather than after-the-fact refinancing will be more beneficial to students in the long-run.
“It’s amazing how many students look at their bill and don’t know what it means,” she said.
Through a combination of incorporating financial literacy into first year programs, encouraging students to address questions they have about their finances sooner rather than later and exit-counseling for student loans, Zehren said they can better address the issue of growing student debt.
She said that students have already responded to these resources, with exit-counseling last December being widely attended by graduating seniors.
“It was standing-room only,” Zehren said.
Overall, she said that students need to be cognizant of all their options when it comes to paying for school, and not put it off until after graduation.
“It’s not like ordering from Amazon,” she joked, adding that the options available to students, and how they deal with debt after graduation, require a great deal of consideration on the part of both students and their parents.
In addition to issues relating to financing an education, Peterson commented on the difficulty college grads still have finding jobs in our recovering economic climate.
He said that while jobs in the manufacturing and mechanical industries in the state have seen a strong resurgence, other sectors have been slower in coming back.
“All we can do is encourage the private sector to understand that we have a lot of well-trained people who are coming out of our colleges and universities and locate businesses who can employ them,” Peterson said
He added that schools in the state are also strengthening their efforts to aid grads in finding jobs.
“I think the schools are focusing more on having programs … to help students identify where the jobs are and find better pathways.”
Yet, even with the challenges posed to students, Peterson still encourages the pursuit of a degree.
“It’s been tough on young people since 2008 and what’s happened with the economy, and I’ve run into lots of people who have been affected by this, but in the long-run I think a four-year degree or more is going to pay off, no doubt about it,” Peterson said.
Peterson has been running against Republican Torrey Westrom, who currently serves in the Minnesota State Senate from District 12.
The 2014 elections take place Tuesday, Nov. 4. To find your polling place, visit the state of Minnesota’s website.