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Omdahl: College student debt spiraling upward

Omdahl writes, "Students suffer from what Edward Banfield called “present orientedness” in "The Unheavenly City" - the inclination to celebrate the pleasures of the day, costs be damned, thereby deferring the cost to some point in the future. Today is the day of reckoning."

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Around 100,000 North Dakota students and former students owe an average of $29,000 in private and federal student loan debt. Translated, that means a total of $3.2 billion, according to Lending Tree compilations.

While this may be the second lowest debt in the 50 states, many borrowers are having a tough time paying for a student lifestyle now gone. After all, $29,000 is a lot of money, especially if students majored in courses that fail to match market needs. Some borrowers owe over $80,000.

Student debt is increasing at 27% per year - or six times faster than the national economy - and has doubled since 2010.

Because the student loan programs involve 16 million borrowers nationally, it has come to the attention of Congress as a knot in our economy. In fact, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has proposed that the federal government pay off student loans.

Before this proposal will find favorable winds, Americans – especially North Dakotans - will want to know who should bear the responsibility for this growing crisis. There is enough blame to go around and it doesn’t all belong to the students.


At a recent retired faculty roundtable, participants identified a number of guilty parties.

The state of North Dakota is one. At one time, the public colleges and universities were receiving over 70% of their revenue from the general funds appropriated by the legislature. The level kept dropping until now state support is somewhere in the 20-30% range.

So the Board of Higher Education was forced to authorize higher and higher tuition, knowing that students had a clear path to the bank. Not only that, new fees and charges have been added through the years to further weigh on student debt.

In the haste to fill the financial gap, loan restrictions were loosened so easier credit has been partly to blame.

North Dakota students arriving on campuses these days come from an environment of prosperity so they expect to continue the same style of living they enjoyed at home. Dorm rooms are no longer adequate and students choose the more costly private rental units.

So the campuses now have sparsely-filled dormitories and, in some cases, have razed them or converted them to new uses.

Students suffer from what Edward Banfield called “present orientedness” in "The Unheavenly City" - the inclination to celebrate the pleasures of the day, costs be damned, thereby deferring the cost to some point in the future. Today is the day of reckoning.

It is true that many students avoid debt by taking on part-time jobs and/or relying on parents. Unfortunately, parents in the lower income sector are struggling themselves and are unable to help finance their kids’ futures.


At our roundtable, we shared stories about struggling through college and wondered why student debt has to be so big when raisin bread and cheese got us through four years.

Warren’s proposal has the fatal flaw of inequities in paying the large debt of some and the small debt of others. She will also have to explain how paying off all student debt would be in the national interest.

But 16 million borrowers have clout in a democracy.

Click here for more of Lloyd Omdahl's columns.

Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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