Commission keeps paying student loans

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County commissioners on Monday committed $15,000 to an ongoing student loan repayment program intended to help recruit employees to county businesses, but a glut of applicants could mean the only folks that will be happy with the results will be current applicants and banks.

Under the program, the county and state each contribute $1,500 a year for five years, $15,000 total, to help an employed participant pay down debt they incurred in college.

The county’s share per participant, $7,500 total over five years, means there is enough to pay for just two spots in the program, which are filled.

But chances of attracting new employees to the county with the incentive could be hampered because of the mound of approved applicants waiting in the wings.

“I have more than 25 on the waiting list,” economic development director Teresa Huffman said. “Any time you pay something for somebody it’s going to be popular.”

An average Kansas college student graduated with almost $26,000 of debt in 2014, according to Peterson’s, publisher of a widely used guide for prospective collegians.

Huffman said there has been some change in participants since the program started in 2011.

One reached the payout limit, and another moved, she said. Both slots were filled from the waiting list in the order those applications were approved by the state.

Meanwhile, applicants higher on the waiting list have to hope others drop out to improve their chances.

“You just never know,” Huffman said. “If someone moves away that’s on the list, everybody moves up. We don’t want that to happen.”

Commissioner Dan Holub said the state’s first-come, first-served policy, limited county finances, and the extensive waiting list combine to eliminate the program as a recruitment tool.

“Once you select two people, you’re not recruiting anymore,” Holub said. “The only way you can beat it is to put more money into it. It’s just a bad year to even think about that.”

The county would have to commit $202,500 to take care of all the people on the waiting list and open two spaces to use for employee recruitment.

“We just can’t afford this stuff,” Holub said.

However, the county isn’t the only entity that qualifies for student loan repayment assistance from the state’s Rural Opportunity Zone program.

Employers willing to commit $1,500 a year for five years to help an employee reduce college debt can get the same $7,500 match for the employee that the county gets from the state.

“For an employer to use this as a recruitment tool is invaluable,” Huffman said. “I like that part of the program very much because it attracts people to this area.”

Employers have yet to share Huffman’s enthusiasm. While some have expressed initial interest, none are using the option right now, she said.

Still, Huffman promotes employer involvement when opportunities present themselves.

“If I speak with an employer and they’re having trouble getting workforce, I talk with them aout this,” she said. “I think it’s a great program.”

Holub liked the employer sponsored option because it’s responsive to their needs.

“You need to be able to pick and choose what you’re trying to recruit without the state meddling with it,” he said. “Government can facilitate to a degree, but mostly they need to stay out of the way. Businesess can make things happen; government can’t.”

Last modified Aug. 24, 2016