It was a sunny Saturday afternoon on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, but in a rare turn, the Memorial Union was buzzing more indoors than on the terrace overlooking Lake Mendota.
The draw was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, in town campaigning for Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold. Speaking mostly to UW students, the topic of college affordability was one that resonated.
Warren — who was swarmed by students to pose for selfies after her speech — said the U.S. Senate needs Feingold now "more than ever."
"Young people … can’t do the things that they would do that would keep this economy up and going … because they’re being crushed by student loan debt," Warren said.
Research from One Wisconsin Institute, the research arm of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, has shown that those with student loan debt are more likely to rent than buy a home and more likely to buy a used car than a new one.
Feingold, who launched his campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson with a tour of Wisconsin's 72 counties, said the most common concern he heard from people on his travels was the cost of higher education.
"More and more post-college plans start and end with the question of how to pay off a student loan," Feingold said.
College Democrats of Wisconsin chairwoman Phoenix Rice-Johnson, a UW-Madison senior majoring in political science and international studies, said that's been true for her.
Rice-Johnson attended UW-Madison with the help of federal grants and loans, and said she discovered as a high school student that one year of tuition was more than double her father's annual salary.
She said she's committed to pursuing a career in public service, but added that those jobs typically don't pay well.
"There are a lot of individuals who go out thinking they're going to do good for the world, and then realize the jobs that pay are the jobs that benefit corporations," Rice-Johnson said. "It's a sad reality that we have to consider that."
Noting how long it's been since both he and Johnson attended college, Feingold said when they were in school, they were able to graduate and move on with their lives. That's not so for many students today.
Nationwide student debt levels are at an all-time high, at $1.3 trillion held by 43 million people.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 812,000 Wisconsinites have federal student loans. They owe more than $18.2 million — an average of about $28,000 per person. Those figures don't include those with private debt.
"I believe it is our moral responsibility to make sure that you can get off to life with a fresh start as well," said Feingold, who served three terms before Johnson ousted him in 2010.
"Now that Sen. Feingold has broken his pledge by raising a majority of his money from outside of Wisconsin, it's not surprising he has turned to outside political figures to help him recapture what he considers to be his Senate seat," said Johnson spokesman Brian Reisinger of Saturday's event. "Feingold and Warren's ultra-partisan rhetoric and big government giveaway proposals remind Wisconsinites why they voted him out of office in 2010, and will keep him from returning in 2016."
Reisinger was referring to Feingold's decision not to renew a pledge he first made in 1992 and upheld in previous campaigns: to collect the majority of his campaign contributions from Wisconsinites.
But Warren made her share of digs at Johnson.
"Your current senator, Ron Johnson, is one of the guys out in front to make sure that when the choice is between tax loopholes for billionaires and reducing the interest rate on student loans, Ron Johnson stands strong for billionaires," Warren said.
She was referencing Johnson's vote against her proposal to allow student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at significantly lower interest rates. To prevent the bill from adding to the federal deficit, it would enact the "Buffett Rule," imposing a minimum tax rate on millionaires.
"Ron Johnson believes that the Koch brothers are going to buy this race," Warren said. "He thinks that billionaires will decide who’s going to be the senator from Wisconsin. And all I can say is, we’ve got news for him. The people will decide who the senator from Wisconsin is gonna be, and that’s gonna be someone who won't be there just for the millionaires, just for the billionaires, just for the big corporations. It will be someone who will stand up and fight for the people of Wisconsin, and that is Russ Feingold."
Johnson has said he doesn't think the federal government should be involved in college education funding. He said at a March town hall meeting in Verona that the federal government has "enticed" students to incur debt by subsidizing loans, and has questioned whether the government's role in college financing makes the student debt problem worse.
"Ron believes we need to make college affordable and accessible for students of all income levels," Reisinger said. "Loans play a major role for many students and that's why Ron supported student loans by voting twice for legislation to improve them with stabilized interest rates. Unlike Sen. Feingold, Ron is willing to confront the tough challenge of making college more affordable."
Jake Roble, a UW-Madison junior studying neurobiology and global health, said he expects to graduate with about $22,000 in debt. That's not bad, he said, but he expects the number to increase when he attends professional school.
Roble is returning to school this year after taking a year off to work in home care and save money.
"I think it’s ridiculous that we live in the richest country in the world, one of the most prosperous countries in history, and we haven’t figured out how to provide affordable education," Roble said.
Kelsey Beuning, a senior majoring in strategic communications, said since she's about to graduate, the concept of refinancing resonates the most with her.
Warren and Feingold also voiced support for making community college more affordable and working toward debt forgiveness.
A refinancing option would provide "some way out of the desperation that having that much debt can cause," Beuning said.
"Probably the most important point Elizabeth Warren made today is we are cutting a huge group of people out of participating in society because we’re not giving them the opportunity to flourish at this key time when they should be taking advantage of the organizations and opportunities around them, but instead they have to work, they have to take a year off of school," said Signe Beti, a sophomore majoring in political science.
Roble, Beuning and Beti acknowledged they're more politically involved than some of their fellow students. But Beti said he thinks tackling student loan debt is the way to engage more students.
"If there is something that turns them on, it will be this," Beti said.
Warren joined Feingold for a fundraiser held at a Middleton home earlier on Saturday.