Once again, Rep. Kristi Noem is surprised by reality. This time, it's South Dakota's highest-in-the-nation percentage of new college graduates carrying student loan debt:

Seventy-five percent of South Dakota students in the graduating class of 2010 had student loan debt after college, according to the survey, an initiative of the nonprofit independent research organization Institute for College Access & Success.

...Rep. Kristi Noem, an outspoken opponent of President Barack Obama's student debt-loan forgiveness program, was somewhat surprised to learn that South Dakota is considered a high-debt state for college students.

"I wouldn't generally think that because our universities ... here in South Dakota offer real competitive rates," she said [Lynn Taylor Rick, "South Dakota College Students Lead the Country in Loan Debt," Rapid City Journal, 2011.11.28].

Check out ICAS's interactive map and state-by-state reports, and you'll see that while three-quarters of South Dakota's students are stuck paying off loans, California manages to get a majority of its college students out the door with no student loan debt... and the minority with student loans carry an average of $5000 less in debt than their South Dakota counterparts. Dang: you'd think Occupy Wall Street would find even more recruits here in South Dakota.

Naturally, leave it to Kristi Noem, who has lots of B.S. but no B.A., to recommend a "solution" that doesn't address the problem at hand:

But she doesn't believe that state-funded loan programs are the answer.

"At the end of the day ... what this would do is make it easier for taxpayers to be on the hook for student loans," she said.

Instead, she would like to see more emphasis on distance learning, which includes online courses that allow students to save money by staying at home.

"I would encourage more of that type of education policy," she said [Taylor Rick, 2011.11.28].

We can debate the quality of online courses compared to on-campus, in-person courses. My wife and I have taken numerous online courses, and we both agree that more often than not, the interaction and learning we get online lags what we get from classroom interaction with professors and peers.

But Rep. Noem misses a bigger point: under current policy, online courses wouldn't save South Dakota students tuition. Students who take nothing but online courses actually pay self-support tuition, which is more than double regular tuition. Maybe you save money by living with Mom and Dad (that faint rumble you hear is hundreds of aspiring South Dakota empty-nesters grumbling, "Thanks a lot, Kristi!"), but if you take 32 credits online in one year, your tuition bill goes from $3658 to $8864, a $5200 difference. Plus, you get less access to on-campus resources like the library, the fitness center, and student clubs and activities.

Students who want to take seriously the GOP propaganda about responsibility and independence would not take Rep. Noem's advice. They'd ask DSU or USD for a housing waiver, rent a drafty apartment downtown, and take classes on campus. If the universities wanted to help, they'd free more students of the monopoly grip of Aramark and its overpriced food service. They'd allow students to opt out of fees for services that students choose not to use (like the mandatory community center membership that I never used in four years at DSU).

South Dakota offers competitive tuition rates, but we apparently aren't offering enough opportunities for students to pay their way through college. While Kristi overcomes her surprise, maybe the rest of us can think up some real solutions to help more students graduate debt-free and better positioned to choose a good career and spend their starting wages on cars and homes and other things that will generate tax revenue and jobs instead of loan payments.