The average debt of undergraduate students graduating from the University of Utica has declined over the past five years, but remains significant, according to information released by the school.

In the 2016-17 school year, the average debt was $31,694. In the last school year, 2020-21, the average debt was $28,911.

At Hamilton College, approximately 1-2% of graduates stay in the Mohawk Valley after graduation. The others walk away.

Hamilton officials have no data on why the graduates chose to leave the area. However, anecdotally, officials said graduates could leave for larger metropolitan areas because they offer a greater number and diversity of job prospects.

Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. has a proposal to tackle both fronts: He’s looking to start a program to help businesses pay off student debt, a move he says will also help keep graduates in the region.

Picente first addressed the idea during his county state address in April.

“Some do it on a limited basis,” Picente said. “It will allow them to do that on a broader basis.”

How the Debt Relief Program Works

Picente sees student debt relief as a possible benefit for area employers. He put it alongside other benefits, such as health insurance and 401(k) plans.

The county will partner with the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties to help local employers provide student debt relief as a benefit.

Picente said federal stimulus funds will support the program.

“That way it’s not all on their side,” Picente said of helping businesses implement the benefit package. “We are really scratching the surface.”

Picente said he was in talks with businesses in Oneida County about the program. He expects more information about the program to be announced in the coming months.

“The region has a lot to offer”

According to several business leaders, there are currently no companies offering student loan assistance in the county.

Mark Turnbull, president of the New Hartford Chamber of Commerce, said there’s been a trend for graduates to leave the area after finishing college.

“I think it’s part of being alone and the opportunity that appears elsewhere,” he said.

Turnbull also said some graduates return once they’re older and have kids of their own, and companies are hiring people who can work remotely, which could help keep people in the area.

“I think the area has a lot to offer,” he said. “We have a bit of everything.”

Charles Sexton co-owns three Edible Arrangements stores in downtown New York, including Rome and New Hartford, with his wife, Danielle.

Sexton said his stores typically have five to seven employees per store, with more staff coming in at certain times of the year, normally around the holidays.

It has employed hundreds of people – many of university age – since opening its first store in Rome in March 1998.

“Most of them left the area,” he said of his employees after graduating from college.

Sexton notes that his company is often just a stepping stone for employees looking to earn extra money while pursuing their education or seeking their calling in life.

However, he said he helps mentor his employees and that education is important to him. Because of this, Sexton said he has seen former employees become 911 emergency operators, teachers, nurses, and workers in various technology fields.

Those with technology degrees tend to leave the region, he said, while those with nursing or teaching degrees are more likely to stay.

“I think it depends on their field of study,” Sexton said.

A National Look at Debt Reduction

As pressure mounts from progressives to provide relief to student borrowers, President Joe Biden recently said he plans to use executive power in the coming weeks to write off student loan debt — but less of $50,000.

“I’m looking at facing debt reduction,” Biden told USA TODAY. “I’m looking closely at whether or not…there will be further debt forgiveness and I’ll have a response on that within the next two weeks.”

Biden faces growing pressure to offer widespread debt relief to student borrowers as the administration continues to suspend student loan repayments.

Information from USA Today reports was used in this article.

Ed Harris is the Oneida County reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Ed Harris at EHarris1@gannett.com.

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