How student loan forgiveness would impact South Dakota's college students, graduates

·4 min read

President Joe Biden has signaled in recent weeks that he's thinking about fulfilling a campaign promise to offer relief for student loan borrowers, up to $50,000.

In South Dakota, 73% of Class of 2020 graduates had an average of $32,029 in student loan debt, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success.

For students like Grace Bucklin and John Walker at Augustana University, student loan forgiveness could affect their long-term financial wellbeing.

And, for students like 2021 Roosevelt High School alumna Etta McKinley, student loan forgiveness could mean the difference between staying in Sioux Falls working in food service, and moving back to New York City to pursue Broadway dreams.

Here's how student loan forgiveness would impact students like McKinley, Bucklin and Walker.

Etta McKinley (right) poses with her friend Sierra Queen on the New York City subway. The two met while McKinley was living in New York City attending the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in fall 2021. Now, McKinley needs financial help getting back into her dream college.
Etta McKinley (right) poses with her friend Sierra Queen on the New York City subway. The two met while McKinley was living in New York City attending the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in fall 2021. Now, McKinley needs financial help getting back into her dream college.

Future 'on pause' without further financial support

McKinley, an RHS alumna who once made headlines in Sioux Falls for calling out hair discrimination and participating in protests against racism, needs help getting back into a prestigious music college in New York City: the American Musical & Dramatic Academy (AMDA).

She thinks support through a GoFundMe, or the potential of student loan forgiveness, would help her get back to school.

More: Is student loan forgiveness on the horizon?

Abigail Turner, who now goes by her birth name Etta McKinley, is pictured here giving the commencement speech during Roosevelt High School's graduation at the Sioux Falls Arena on May 30, 2021.
Abigail Turner, who now goes by her birth name Etta McKinley, is pictured here giving the commencement speech during Roosevelt High School's graduation at the Sioux Falls Arena on May 30, 2021.

Shortly after graduating from RHS last spring, McKinley moved to New York City and lived in the dorms at AMDA.

“It was the best experience of my life,” McKinley said of the move from South Dakota to the Big Apple. “It felt magical. It was just everything I had dreamed and more.”

McKinley was in NYC at AMDA until October when things became financially difficult for her.

Etta McKinley (right) poses with her friend Matthew Gardner at the New York City Pride Parade. The two met while McKinley was living in New York City attending the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in fall 2021. Now, McKinley needs financial help getting back into her dream college.
Etta McKinley (right) poses with her friend Matthew Gardner at the New York City Pride Parade. The two met while McKinley was living in New York City attending the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in fall 2021. Now, McKinley needs financial help getting back into her dream college.

She received some help from FAFSA, scholarships and from her birth mother, but when her birth mom told her in October that she couldn't make the next payments, McKinley couldn't pay on her own anymore.

Coming back to Sioux Falls and having to leave AMDA “honestly broke my heart,” McKinley said.

McKinley's friend Lisa Bjorneberg helped set up a GoFundMe for McKinley so she can go back to achieving her dreams studying musical theater and performing arts.

Bjorneberg said she knows AMDA is a life-changing opportunity for McKinley, and will give her a leg up in breaking into the music business.

Etta McKinley poses in front of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City in fall 2021 in between classes at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy. Now, McKinley needs financial help getting back into her dream college.
Etta McKinley poses in front of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City in fall 2021 in between classes at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy. Now, McKinley needs financial help getting back into her dream college.

“In a world where incredible sums of money are tossed about for space flights, political campaigns and wasteful projects, the idea that $60,000 could absolutely change (McKinley)’s life inspired me to act,” Bjorneberg said.

For now, McKinley is working as a waitress at Swamp Daddy’s Cajun Kitchen and as an intern with the Levitt at the Falls, she said, until she can save up enough money to go back to AMDA.

Student loan forgiveness would allow McKinley to go back to school and finish her studies, something "I deeply and truly want to do." Until then, she said she feels her future is "on pause."

The Augustana logo on the reverse side of the press box at Bowden Field
The Augustana logo on the reverse side of the press box at Bowden Field

'Strive to not let the threat of the loans weigh down my passion for knowledge'

Augustana University students Grace Bucklin and John Walker also say they would benefit from student loan forgiveness in the future.

Bucklin, 22, a senior sociology, Spanish and environmental studies major, graduates with their undergraduate degree this month. They owe $46,000 in federal loans and will start paying them within the next six months when their post-graduate grace period ends.

They plan to take a gap year before attending graduate school, and they're working to have enough money to complete their future schooling and pay for financial responsibilities along with student loan debt, Bucklin said.

Monthly payments will come up between the time after the grace period to the time Bucklin attends graduate school, they said, but Bucklin doesn't know how much their monthly payments will be yet.

"I am sure the student loan debt will affect my financial wellbeing in the future," they said. "My spending power will be limited by my monthly payments. I currently strive to not let the threat of the loans weigh down my passion for knowledge."

Augustana University's 2021 homecoming royalty candidates. Top row, from left to right: Brayden Harris, Jason Becker. Middle row, from left to right: Noah Hovorka, John Walker, Ted Van Alstyne, Kyja Norris. Bottom row, from left to right: Taha Afzal, Sheldon Jensen, Alexa Lammers, Amara Rodis, Rebecca Ziems.
Augustana University's 2021 homecoming royalty candidates. Top row, from left to right: Brayden Harris, Jason Becker. Middle row, from left to right: Noah Hovorka, John Walker, Ted Van Alstyne, Kyja Norris. Bottom row, from left to right: Taha Afzal, Sheldon Jensen, Alexa Lammers, Amara Rodis, Rebecca Ziems.

Student loan forgiveness affirms the American educational value of the pursuit of knowledge for social betterment, and not just for a paycheck, Bucklin said.

Student loan forgiveness would be 'a weight off my chest'

Walker, 22, a senior government/international affairs, philosophy and classics major with an emphasis in pre-law at Augie, said he currently owes $20,000 in student loans to the private college.

He thinks he'll end up owing around $28,000 in loans when he graduates as a fifth-year student, and he's not sure how much his payments will be.

Knowing his loan amounts feels overwhelming and fuels Walker's anxiety, he said.

John Walker participates in a Women's March in response to the restrictive Texas abortion laws on Saturday, October 2, 2021, walking from Carnegie Hall to the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls. "I support women, and my friends that are women," he said. "I don't think men should be in charge of women's bodies."
John Walker participates in a Women's March in response to the restrictive Texas abortion laws on Saturday, October 2, 2021, walking from Carnegie Hall to the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls. "I support women, and my friends that are women," he said. "I don't think men should be in charge of women's bodies."

"Student loan forgiveness for me would be a weight off my chest," he said. "I often consider how long it will take me to pay it off and I know there's many students that have more to pay off than me, but I just know that it will be an obligation that will hold me back financially."

As he considers attending law school, Walker said he knows he'll have to take out more student loans for that, impacting long-term decisions like where he works after graduation and how much his career pays over "what can do the most good," he said.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: South Dakota college students hopeful for student loan forgiveness