WASHINGTON — A southwest Minnesota native explained her struggle in handling student debt during a Wednesday morning forum mediated by Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Washington.

“I have peers that have changed careers (from education), and those are the people that we need in the classroom,” said Chelsey Jo Herrig, who attends Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. “They want to change the lives of students, but they can’t afford to.”

The conference addressed the problems of student debt and college affordability. A panel of five students, which included the 23-year-old Herrig, discussed their anxieties, careers and other issues — from high interest rates on student loans and rising tuition — with Senate Democrats.

Many of the students were from low-income families and, like Herring, worked around 30 hours a week during the school year.

Herring, who is from Jackson, is majoring in elementary education with an emphasis in math and a minor in special education.

Although she comes from a single- parent and low-income family, the choice of going to college was never a question. Herrig knew she wanted to teach.

“My mom knew college was expensive,” she said at the forum, “but she never told me not to go because she knew my heart was set on becoming an educator.”

Herrig did all she could to attend college. She worked multiple jobs and even became the student chairwoman for the National Education Association (NEA) — the largest labor union in the United States. At the NEA, she leads 55,000 students who aspire to become teachers.

Herrig’s biggest fear is that the financial burden of being a teacher is driving education students to other fields.

In December, she will graduate with $45,000 in student debt.

“The starting salary is $35,000 to $37,000 a year (for teachers), and with student debt and student loans that doesn’t go too far,” said Rhonda Bonnstetter, an SMSU professor of education. In addition, students pursuing a future in education also have to pay for state exams and licenses before they even become teachers.

Some rural Minnesota public schools are facing a big problem — teacher shortages.

“It’s hard to find teachers; a lot of them are hired before they even graduate college,” said Bonnstetter, adding that shortages are in elementary teaching, early childhood, and science and math courses.

Many of the students who study in these areas end up not teaching for public schools and working in the private sector instead, she said.

Sen. Al Franken emphasized that the cost of tuition has outpaced what students are able to earn at the part-time jobs they have while in school.

“I’ve had kids tell me that they sell their blood,” he said.

“The general problem is that college education gets more expensive every year and outruns the rate of inflation,” said David Sturrock, an SMSU professor.

Unlike most debt, carriers are not able to file for bankruptcy. The graduates will have to make payments until the loans are paid off, so student debt is a long-term problem.

Furthermore, because the loans are from the federal government, states have little power to alleviate the pressure for graduates.

The median debt for Minnesota graduates with a bachelor’s degree in 2014 was $27,296 ,according to a report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Another report from the Project on Student Debt ranked Minnesota fifth in the nation in average student debt.

At the federal level, Klobuchar, Franken and other Senate Democrats have drafted the Reducing Educational Debt (RED) Act, which incorporates previous legislative efforts to control tuition costs and interest rates on loans. The goals of the RED Act were announced last month.

“Students are having more debt because of one, raising tuition costs, and two, high interest rates,” Klobuchar said.

The RED Act would tackle these problems by increasing a portion of the Pell Grant to inflation, allowing students to refinance their loans as well as waive two years of community and technical college tuition.

Klobuchar detailed that the bill proposes allowing students to refinance their loans at an interest rate of 3.3 percent.

The bill also proposes that people with an income of over $1 million would fund the aid that students and graduates would receive through the bill — dubbed the “Warren Buffet Rule,” according to Klobuchar. She said Buffet had thought of the idea after he realized that his secretary was paying more than he did for education because of the loans she had to pay back.

However, student loan reform probably won’t happen this year because of increased polarization in Congress, Sturrock said.

It might happen after the new president is elected into office.

Sturrock said the “honeymoon” period, which is immediately after the new president takes office, might nurture enough bipartisan support to pass a bill that will relieve student debt. The other party might be more willing to negotiate during this time.

“Everyone agrees that this is a problem,” he said. “This election cycle will give (politicians) the opportunity to educate voters about it.

“We will see what will happen in 2017,” he said.