Montana Senate passes bill requesting debt workshops for university students

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell

The Montana Senate has passed a bill that would request that the Montana University System host workshops to help students better manage their debt.

Senate Bill 87, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is scheduled for the House Education Committee Wednesday.

The bill would also inform students twice a year how much debt they have accumulated. Regier said students often accrue debt in college and don’t think about it until they have to pay.

“My concern is for the students when they graduate. They’ve kind of been out-of-sight, out-of-mind with debt,” Regier said. “And then, they get their diploma and all of a sudden they are making monthly payments. And that can be pretty depressing.”

The bill has been amended since it was first introduced. Originally, the Montana University System was mandated to put the programs in place. But under the Montana Constitution, the Legislature isn’t allowed to tell the Board of Regents how to run the universities. Regier said the change from forcing to requesting doesn’t invalidate the bill.

“I still believe the bill does a lot. It sends a strong message to the Board of Regents and the University System that debt information is good to give to the students,” Regier said.

The workshops would also tell borrowers average rates for debt and job placement in their field of study. That’s something Julian Adler with the Montana Public Interest Research Group, disagrees with. He said getting a specific degree doesn’t mean making enough money to pay debt.

“The issue is so complex that bringing it down to simple statistics that are easy enough to understand in one session for students, I think would turn them off from degree programs that are ultimately more prosperous for them,” Adler said. “So, unless there’s some sort of strict control, the information you’d be getting wouldn’t be entirely honest or entirely helpful.”

Adler said the Montana University System already does financial literacy programs and what student life will look like after they graduate. He said the bill was redundant and doesn’t tackle issues that students are really concerned with, like rising tuition.

“To inform people about debt they might incur is to tell students something that they already know, without offering any real kind of solution,” Adler said.

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 32-to-17.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.