Dems talk tuition: Legislators address ‘crisis-level’ debt concerns

By Kimberly Wethal

Feb. 3, 2016

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold held a roundtable discussion for the UW-W College Democrats on Jan. 26, a day after Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) introduced the “Higher Ed/Lower Debt” bill, a measure co-written by Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Milton), making it evident Wisconsin democrats had tuition costs on their minds last week.

Both the Democrats in the senate and the assembly, and Feingold himself called the student debt situation in Wisconsin a “crisis.”

‘Denial of the American dream’

Feingold started the conversation about student debt by asking the roundtable of a dozen students how much they had accumulated.

Answers ranged from little to none, to a few predicting a six-figure debt load at the end of their college careers.

It’s even forced students like senior Matthew Heitmann to move back in with family just to afford tuition.

“It’s been very stressful,” Heitmann said. “I had a part-time job at a pizza place, just to meet rent … it’s close to $400, $500 a month, and that’s living off campus. On campus, it costs more, which I’ve always thought [to be] really weird.”

None of those answers sat well with Feingold.

“What’s happening – not to all of you individually, but to many people on this campus – is [higher education will] become something that’s just for wealthy people if you simply can’t afford or you don’t want to get in the middle of all this debt,” Feingold said.

Feingold is currently running against incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) for the seat in the U.S. Senate he lost in 2010.

He denounced opponent Johnson’s stance on college affordability. Johnson’s viewpoint says higher education loans are “free money” and the federal government shouldn’t have gotten involved with loaning students money in the first place, Feingold said.

Johnson’s record isn’t exactly consistent with Feingold’s claims, however; while Johnson doesn’t want taxpayers to “foot the bill” for student education, he still “applauded” the renewal of the Federal Perkins Loan program, according to a Dec. 16, 2015 news release.

The problem Feingold has with Johnson’s position on college affordability, he said, was that neither he nor his opponent have personally dealt with the challenges tied to minimizing the amount of debt accrued by a student’s choice to attend college.

“[Johnson’s] always saying ‘look, I was in college, I worked my way through and I paid my own tuition’,” Feingold said. “When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about how you’re going to afford college. I don’t remember a single conversation like that, because that’s not the way it was.”

Regardless of his opponent’s viewpoint, Feingold has been visiting every college campus around the state, because it had been a recurring issue brought up during his senate bid.

“There’s no campus where it isn’t an important issue,” Feingold said. “It’s really confirmed my belief that we have to do something to allow students to have the ability to get lower interest rates, and we need a major national initiative to try to do something.”

The ways Feingold would like to fix the “life-delaying” student debt burden on students is through passing U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bill allowing students to refinance loans, making the FAFSA loan application easier and giving interest revenue on student loans back to universities in order to make the cost of attendance cheaper.

‘Leveling the playing field’

Though the “Higher Ed/Lower Debt” bill is not likely to “see its day in court” in the time left in the current legislative session, Jorgensen said, the time has come for the Senate and Assembly-led Republicans to stop “ignoring” their college affordability efforts.

Ignoring the $1.3 trillion dollar national student debt total, $19 billion of which is owned by 1 million Wisconsin residents, will lead to a continuation of a stagnating state economy, Jorgensen said.

“We need to take action to avoid serious economic problems,” Jorgensen said. “I hope the Republicans will give it a hearing so we can have this discussion. It’s a very important one.”

Sen. Sargent’s bill would allow students to apply for a grant to cover tuition, living expenses and educational materials such as books, if they graduated with at least a 3.0 GPA and then work in Wisconsin for three years following their graduation. If a student failed to graduate or work within the state for the required period of time, the grant money would then turn into a regular student loan account.

It would also allow for refinancing of student loans for those who’ve already obtained a degree.

“These grants are not giveaways to students, and require a level of commitment on their part,” Jorgensen said. “We invest in you, because you’re going to invest in us. It’s more a marriage, a partnership, if you will, on moving our state forward.”

There’s currently no numbers determining the fiscal impact of the bill.

Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) said the Higher Ed/Lower Debt bill should at least be discussed in order to look at its practicality in a statement to the Royal Purple.

“Doing nothing to address the student debt crisis is not practical,” she said.

Gov. Scott Walker joined the democrats in talking about college reform in his sixth State of the State address in January. He proposed investing any savings from a restructuring of the state employee health care coverage system into education and giving additional funding to dual-enrollment programs to allow high school students to earn technical college credits. He also mentioned  talks with UW System President Ray Cross about a three-year degree program, among others.

Jorgensen said Walker’s ideas will be “meaningful to really no one.”

“It wasn’t until just recently during the governor’s State of the State address that he decided, because of, I believe, polling numbers that he was going to throw out some ideas,” Jorgensen said. “They’re all-for-show bills that won’t do much to help anybody.”

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