Student Loan Debt Gets a Daring New Fix
Life + Money

Student Loan Debt Gets a Daring New Fix

REUTERS/Mark Blinch

HELP WANTED! Move to the city of Niagara Falls, New York – and you could receive up to $7,000 over a two-year period to help chip away at your crushing student debt.

Niagara Falls’ downtown has fallen into disrepair over the years, and its population has plunged from a high of about 100,000 to a little over 50,000. The city needs bright young college graduates with new ideas and creative minds to help revitalize what looks like a dying town. It also needs to keep its population above 50,000 in order to qualify for federal and state resources.

According to Seth Piccirillo, director of community development, “College grads have a need. We have a need because we want them to live here, so we decided to put the two together,” he told CBS News earlier this week.

The city’s lawmakers have just approved $200,000 in Urban Renewal Agency funding to support the first crop of 20 college graduates, who will live and work in a designated downtown area of Niagara Falls and help contribute toward the remaking of the city – all within shooting distance of the iconic waterfalls that have for years attracted roughly 2 million tourists a year.

Applications have already been flowing in from around the country for this unique opportunity, Piccirillo says, although he acknowledges that “the graduating class of 2013 will be our first real swing at it.”

Student debt has reached sky-high proportions, topping $1 trillion for the first time in history – and nearly all college students have some form or debt to repay. Under the Niagara Falls plan, any college grad with a two- or four-year degree earned during the past two years can apply for the $3,500 loan per year (for two years), payable toward their student loans. Graduate students are also eligible.

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A similar program is already underway in rural Kansas, where 50 counties in the state have created Rural Opportunity Zones, or ROZs, offering financial incentives to new full-time residents, including tax breaks. “Our hope was that we’d get young professionals to move,” Chris Harris, manager of the Kansas program, told ABC’s Good Morning America. “Physicians, nurses, lawyers, accountants. And that’s what we’ve seen – health professionals, teachers, veterinarians, accountants, and a surprising number of lawyers… individuals who have a disproportionate economic impact on a region.”

But in Niagara Falls, Piccarillo is also aware that the influx of a mere 20 new college grads can’t fix a crumbling downtown. The problems faced by other struggling cities across the country – crime, safety issues, buildings in disrepair – still need to be addressed. But he’s hopeful about giving the city a boost, citing neighborhoods such as the hip and creative Columbia City in southeast Seattle as a model of revitalization. 

A young college senior in the Bronx, Angie Franco, has already said she plans to apply for the Niagara Falls opportunity – she’ll graduate in 2013 with $20,000 in student loan debt. “Why not?” she told CBS News. “If you’re looking to move somewhere, and there’s a town that’s offering help to pay your student loans, wouldn’t you check that out first before just moving to any random place?”