WHY THESE ISSUES?
As ThinkND prepared to launch in the second half of 2015, we conducted a series of polls and focus groups to gauge public attitudes among ND voters on a range of policy issues. We polled likely conservative, liberal, and independent voters across the state in quantities that resembled the electorate in each region (east, central, and west). The issues below were the three which consistently ranked among the top concerns for all North Dakotas regardless of geography, political party, gender, and age.
Behavioral health was a top concern among those polled, and was even more of a prominent issue when we conducted our focus groups a few months later. Since then, the opioid crisis has become much more pronounced in our state, and funding for a number of health and human service programs which addressed behavioral health were cut due to the budget crisis.
As a result, ThinkND has determined that this issue is going to be the focus of our work in the months ahead. ThinkND has convened a blue ribbon panel of experts from across the state to assess the current state of North Dakota's behavioral health care system and provide a set of recommendations for policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as private entities and foundations to consider.
The current mental health and substance abuse treatment systems in our state have clear and identified gaps which are impacting nearly every population in the state - from children to seniors, in our cities and small towns, in our schools and in our neighborhoods. The ND legislature has been studying these issues closely during the interim session and has approved a significant set of measures for consideration during the 2017 session which would address a number of the core concerns. But there is more work to be done, and ThinkND's blue ribbon panel will assess the ongoing crisis and contribute expert, non-partisan, third party analysis of and recommendations for how to curb it.
THINKND PANEL ON BLUE RIBBON HEALTH
Tyler Auck - Recovering Addict and Licensed Addiction Counselor, State of ND, West Central Human Service Center
Leann Bertsch - Director, ND Department of Corrections
Dan Donlin - former Chief, Bismarck Police
Deb Johnson - CEO, Prairie Harvest Mental Health
Steven McCullough - District Judge, ND East Central District
Pam Sagness - Director, Behavioral Health Division of the ND Department of Human Services
Dr. Jeffrey Schatz - former Superintendent, Fargo Public Schools
Alana Semchenko - Licensed Clinical Psychologist, DeCoteau Trauma-Informed Care
Kurt Snyder - Executive Director, Heartview Foundation
Sherm Syverson - Executive Director, Emergency and Trauma, Sanford Health Fargo
Jessica Thomasson - CEO, Lutheran Social Services ND
STUDENT LOAN DEBT
The issue that cut most broadly across the political spectrum when we conducted our polls and focus groups was that of student loan debt. Seventy-seven percent (77 percent) of those polled were very concerned (31 percent) or somewhat concerned (46 percent) about student loan debt broadly. Our focus group discussions verified this overwhelming consensus among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents that this represents a real and urgent concern in North Dakota.
By The Numbers
In 2011, North Dakota ranked first in the nation for the percentage of students graduating from college with debt at 83 percent. The national average was 69 percent that year. Since then, the state hasn’t produced this statistic or any other for the primary state-by-state analysis on student debt available, The Project on Student Debt, which is authored by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). Currently, North Dakota is the only state in the country that does not provide data to this report. http://ticas.org/posd/map-state-data-2015
Statistics we do have access to indicate that the state’s student loan debt numbers appear to be leveling off or dropping by some measures. According to the 2015 Student Affordability Report which is produced by the North Dakota University System, loan volume is down both in number of borrowers and total students who receive financial aid. However, the average debt load per student - $27,704 - was up 3.3 percent over the previous year. The national increase in average debt was 2 percent in 2015.
According to a 2015 Wallethub study, ND had the second lowest default balance, and the fourth lowest default rate in the country. According to a 2015 fact sheet produced by a national organization called Generation Progress, there are 114,000 student loan borrowers in North Dakota, 63,000 of whom would benefit from refinancing, and another 11,000 who would benefit from a pay-as-you-earn program.
What’s Being Done?
North Dakota’s legislature funds certain loan forgiveness programs – for teachers and for STEM careers - but these are not sufficiently funded. Last year the state received nearly 200 more applications for the teacher loan forgiveness benefit than it had in previous years. In 2014, the program was able to fund 78 percent of the eligible applicants. In 2015, that number dropped to 69 percent.
A bill to offer zero interest loans through the Bank of North Dakota failed to pass during the 2015 legislative session. Other attempts in recent years to include public service employees and essential personnel like law enforcement in the state’s loan forgiveness program also failed.
The state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) offers loans to North Dakota residents enrolled in schools located anywhere, as well as to out-of-state residents attending schools in North Dakota (and a handful of “adjacent” states). Its interest rates are widely regarded as some of the lowest in the country. In 2014, BND launched the Deal ONE program, which allowed ND residents to consolidate their student loan debt at a low rate.
In early 2016, BND’s loan rates for North Dakota residents were 2.13 percent for a variable-rate loan and 4.71 percent for a fixed-rate loan, both substantially lower than rates typical of private student loans and on par with federal student loan rates. Student loans represented 30.4 percent of BND’s portfolio in 2015. BND disbursed about $284 million in student loans in 2015.
When the Deal ONE program was introduced, BND said that around 50,000 North Dakotans would be eligible for the consolidation program. The total number of Deal ONE loans that had been issued as of 12/31/15 was 6811.
Student loan debt is only one piece of the much larger and more complex puzzle of college affordability. Getting a college degree has never been more expensive. Tuition has risen faster than inflation and incomes since the late 1980s. While North Dakota’s four-year colleges and universities tend to compete at or slightly below the national average in terms of affordability, the state will ultimately need a multi-faceted approach to this broader issue.
Many worry that if too many resources are applied to address the current student loan debt crisis, colleges and universities will simply respond by raising tuition and continue spending in ways that do not ultimately benefit the student.
Taking action on student loan debt alone will not solve the larger problem of college affordability, but it represents an important component of a comprehensive solution, and one that our state may have a unique opportunity to address. And it is a place to start. The results of our poll and focus groups indicated that student loan debt causes the greatest concern for North Dakotans right now. We look forward to expanding our examination of the broader issue in the weeks and months to come.
North Dakota’s Unique Situation
The student loan debt crisis is a national problem. But North Dakota is distinctive in that we had the largest percentage in the country of graduates with debt (at least until the state’s colleges and universities opted to stop submitting data voluntarily), and that we have a public, state-owned institution like the Bank of North Dakota, which could provide further financial assistance to the citizens of our state if state policy-makers chose to have the Bank provide it. BND staff have done the admirable work of starting down that path, but given the Bank’s financial success and the demonstrated need, at ThinkND we believe that state policy-makers can and should do more. When asked, 50 percent of North Dakotans we polled last year opposed the Bank of North Dakota profiting off of student loan payments.
What More Can Be Done?
There are a number of ideas in circulation nationally that could be implemented here. There are basic concepts like lowering interest rates even further, but others are specifically tailored in order to suit particular employment sector and population challenges. Income-driven debt repayment options, debt forgiveness for time worked and lived in the state, tax credits for residents to cover loan interest, and tax credits for businesses of all sizes that agree to help their employees pay off student loan debt are all proposals being considered or adopted elsewhere in the country. Below are some examples of what specific states are doing to address this issue.
Massachusetts allows borrowers to deduct the full amount of interest paid on undergrad loans. Maine offers a tax credit to individuals and businesses for student loan payments. The amount of the credit is tied to the price of tuition. Rhode Island enacted a tax credit that requires applicants to be full-time employees with a Rhode Island-based employer and is limited to certain STEM and health fields. Kansas has something called The Rural Opportunity Zone program which is designed to retain college graduates in the state and is a partnership with rural counties that fund half of the loan payments
In 2015, Connecticut passed a law that created ground rules for student loan servicers and a student loan ombudsman’s office that will advise borrowers and New York created a forgiveness program that will make low-income borrowers earning less than $50,000 the primary beneficiaries. The “Get On Your Feet” program makes full monthly payments for up to two years for former students enrolled in a federal income-based repayment program. In North Carolina the state’s university system has the Carolina Covenant which guarantees that low-income students, once admitted, can graduate debt-free if they work 10-12 hours per week in in a work-study job. Carolina Covenant includes academic and personal support services as well.
How will North Dakota respond to the continuing student debt crisis?
In our 2015 polling, there was a clear mandate across the political spectrum for the state's legislature to expand North Dakota's nondiscrimination laws which address housing and employment to include sexual orientation as a protected class.
Seventy-three percent (73%) of North Dakotans in our poll disagreed with the Legislature’s decision in 2015 to continue to allow discrimination in housing and hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. Seventy-eight percent (78%) of individuals under the age of 50 disagreed with the Legislature's decision.
ADDITIONAL RESEARCH DATA
A comprehensive statewide telephone survey of 505 likely voters using both landlines and cell phone numbers was conducted in August of 2015. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus four percent (4%). The results of the survey helped shape the context for follow-up qualitative research on the attitudes of self-identified independent voters. Focus group sessions we held in December of 2015 in Fargo, Jamestown, and Bismarck. Participants were selected to be representative of the electorate in those communities and regions.
COMPOSITION OF POLL RESPONDENTS
Under 30 2%
Over 65 55
No Response 4
No Response 8