By Martha Stoddard / World-Herald Bureau

LINCOLN — The average Nebraska college student faces more than $20,000 worth of student loan debt at graduation.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln feels their pain after completing his bachelor’s degree in 2009 and a law degree four years ago.
“I have $140,000 reasons why I’m concerned about student debt,” he told Education Committee colleagues during a hearing Monday.
Morfeld proposed to lessen the debt burden on at least some students by creating a state-funded financial aid program.
Legislative Bill 691 would provide grants, based on financial need, to students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in either teacher education or health care. The Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education would administer the program and determine which health care professions would be included.
LB 691 does not specify how much money the state would put into the new program.
Morfeld said the committee should decide that question, but he believes the grants need to be $2,000 to $3,000 annually to be meaningful.
That would work out to a price tag of about $6 million to $9 million, based on estimates of the number of potentially eligible students.
Morfeld said the proposed program would help Nebraska by focusing on two fields in which the state faces critical shortages of workers.
The program also could make it easier for students to pursue passions for service, rather than having to choose a career based on earning enough money to pay off student loans, he said.
Mike Baumgartner, executive director of the coordinating commission, endorsed the idea.
“Any bill that attempts to ease the strain that students are facing is welcome,” he said.
Baumgartner said the state provides $16 million worth of financial aid to needy college students through the Nebraska Opportunity Grant program.
That’s enough to give about $1,000 each year to 16,000 students. There is not enough money for the 30,000 other students who qualify, he said.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte questioned whether the government should pick “winners and losers” among careers, as LB 691 would do.
Morfeld said he would prefer to increase the broad-based opportunity grant program, but he doesn’t believe the Legislature would support such a proposal.
“I think we need to start somewhere,” he said.
Supporters of the proposal included representatives from the Nebraska State College System, Creighton University, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Concordia University and the Nebraska State Education Association.
Although there were no opponents, Morfeld acknowledged that the proposal would have to compete for state funds with several other legislative priorities.
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