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Many college student graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

College students, grads working to repay student loans and voters who believe in the value of public education must advocate for changes in the way higher education is financed, said participants in a discussion panel on the UW-Madison campus Thursday night.

The numbers are there for a powerful movement, said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, which has been a strong advocate for creation of a new state agency that would refinance student loans.

Some 43 million Americans are carrying student debt, a number not much smaller than the 55 million people receiving Social Security and considered a powerful voting bloc in national politics, Ross said.

“We want to create an AARP for student loan borrowers,” he said.

Ross was joined on the panel Thursday by Sara Goldrick-Rab, UW-Madison professor of educational policy studies and director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center of the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and Madison Laning, chair of the Associated Students of Madison.

The discussion was sponsored by the Badger Herald and WORT community radio.

“The question is what to advocate for and what can be done given the politics of the state,” Radomski said.

The political climate in Wisconsin, and other states, has tilted toward defunding public education. The Legislature as far back as Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration cut back on public funding to the university, leading to tuition hikes and increasing the need for students to borrow to go to school. The cuts continued under Scott Walker, and the Republican majority has resisted efforts to ease student debt by blocking legislation that would found an authority to refinance loans with lower interest rates so that students would be better able to pay them off.

Beyond what is politically feasible, the panelists disagreed among themselves on what steps to take to make college more affordable.

Refinancing loans would help hundreds of thousands of students who have graduated, Laning said. And it could stop students from dropping out, enabling them to finish their education.

But the underlying problem is the cost of education, and debate over refinancing and other debt prescriptions distract from focusing on that fact, she said.

Laning anticipates that tuition will increase sharply when the freeze imposed for in-state students at UW System schools expires in 2017-2018.

“That’s scary for a lot of students,” she said. And it’s important to realize that non-resident and international students have seen their tuition rise sharply during the freeze, she noted.

Loan refinancing helps many students but exacerbates economic inequities, Goldrick-Rab said. Refinancing helps most those students who borrowed most, and they tend to be the relatively economically advantaged ones who attended private schools or graduate school, she said.

Lower-income students who borrow comparatively little are the ones most often defaulting on their loans, often after dropping out of school without a degree, and are least helped by loan refinancing, she said.

“If we went for something that would stop people from dropping out, we would go for loan forgiveness for Pell grant recipients who where never, ever, supposed to borrow in the first place and were completely betrayed by the whole system,” Goldrick-Rab said. “But we won’t get that, because they are poor people.”

Some 90 percent of recipients of the federal grant to low-income students end up borrowing for college in addition, she said.

Loan refinancing, with its benefit for the middle class, is more politically palatable, but Goldrick-Rab worries that if the middle class gets relief, they will fall silent and student debt will not continue to be a voting issue.

Goldrick-Rab has advocated for a federal-state program that would make the first two years of college free to every high school graduate.

Tuition freezes like that in the UW System actually hurt students by forcing cuts that take away resources students need to finish school on time and by putting a premium on higher paying non-resident students, she said. While a freeze on in-state tuition continues through the UW System, UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank this year won approval to increase the number of out-of-state students admitted to the campus.

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That’s a problem, Goldrick-Rab said, because campuses that cater to wealthier students price out other students as the spending power of the preferred students pushes up the cost of housing and other living expenses.

Radomski encouraged students and their families to press their state representatives and senators for action on student debt issues and work to form coalitions with local elected officials and business groups.

Students need to become aware of the debt they are accruing and start talking with one another about the practical impact and politics, Laning said.

“A lot of students are drowning in debt, but only a few students are talking about it,” she said.

“Get out of that Madison bubble,” where more affluent students may owe less, she advised.

Laning said UW System leadership is following the wrong strategy to change the budget ledger.

“Our administrators and UW System administrators are on a road show —talking to five CEOs about making a donation instead of engaging over 200,000 students and tell them what’s going on — and then the students can bring that information back home,” she said.

Ross said it’s a question of whether public education is going to continue to be a public good paid for with public money.

It’s time to do something and not just make appeals for public education funding all about UW-Madison, Goldrick-Rab counseled.

“The Legislature is not fond of this institution," she said.

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