UMD students demonstrate loan burden with matchsticksStudents intended to light 30,098 matches configured to show the dollar amount $30,098 — the average debt faced by a student who graduated from UMD in 2010, according to the Institute for College Access, and the highest of any public university in Minnesota.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Brittany Nystrom graduated from high school in Fridley, Minn., with a 3.5 grade point average. The daughter of a single mom, she figured she’d be in line for lots of financial help in college.
Two years later, the 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Minnesota Duluth finds herself $23,000 in debt.
“Somehow, I didn’t get a lot of help,” Nystrom said. “It’s been hard. It’s been discouraging.”
Nystrom attended an event at UMD’s Kirby Terrace Friday evening that was designed to call attention to the cost of college and the burden of student debt. Students intended to light 30,098 matches configured to show the dollar amount $30,098 — the average debt faced by a student who graduated from UMD in 2010, according to the Institute for College Access, and the highest of any public university in Minnesota.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Mike Rentz, Duluth campus organizer for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, admitted that he had envisioned warm, sunny weather with no wind when he hatched the idea.
In fact, it was cloudy, the temperature was 42, an east wind off the lake of 14 mph was accompanied by gusts up to 24, and the wind chill was 35, according to the National Weather Service. About 70 students, some bundled up, others stubbornly wearing T-shirts, were up to the task. The matches were not. They produced a smell of sulfur, but not much of a visual effect.
The students weren’t deterred from venting about the debts they’ll face six months after they leave school. They responded to a pep talk from Michael Mullins, an instructor in foreign languages.
People understand that higher education is expensive, Mullins said, but most really don’t fathom the sort of expenses students face. When he asked how many in the group had student loan debts beyond $10,000, most hands went up. When he raised the amount to $20,000, several students kept their hands up.
Among them was Metadel Abegaz, 22, a fifth-year senior from Savage, Minn.
Asked later how much debt she’s carrying, Abegaz said, “I’ve been afraid to look. I’ve passed the $40,000 mark.”
Abegaz, who is a biology major, started the academic year as a full-time student while working three jobs to try to keep up with her debt. She said she had to cut back to two jobs to keep up with her studies. She’s about to graduate, then she’ll have six months before the loans start coming due.
“It almost makes you want to keep going to school so you don’t have to face it,” Abegaz said.
Nystrom said when she graduated from high school, she had no notion how quickly student-loan debts could accumulate. Because of the expense, the psychology major had considered not returning to school this year.
It shouldn’t be that way, Abegaz said.
“Financial issues are the biggest obstacle to students staying in school,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the reason why students aren’t successful. School shouldn’t just be for the privileged.”
Mike DuVall, a junior from Duluth who is a member of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, encouraged his fellow students to lobby against increases in student loan interest rates and cuts in federal Pell grants.
Mullins urged them to lobby the Minnesota Legislature to provide more support for higher education.
“Why are they still in St. Paul?” he asked. “For a football stadium. This is when we come back and say: Great, get your stadium. But we want something for us, too.”