Wisconsin has made a top 10 list on which no state should want to find itself — we are among the states with the highest percentage of college graduates with student loan debt. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, nearly two-thirds of graduates in 2017 left college in Wisconsin not just with a degree but also with an average debt of nearly $30,000.
It was under the policies of Republicans in complete control of state government that Wisconsin found its way into the undesirable student loan debt top 10 club. Continuing down the path that got us into this mess is not a solution, yet that is just what the Republicans still in control of the state Legislature seem intent on doing.
Nationally, there are 45 million Americans burdened with over $1.5 trillion in student debt. Loans taken out to help pay for higher education are now the second leading form of consumer debt, exceeding debt from credit cards or auto loans. According to the latest available data, Wisconsin’s share of this national debt is well in excess of $24 billion, held collectively by well over one million borrowers.
Gov. Tony Evers’ "people’s budget" proposed several commonsense reforms to try to break the cycle of debt we have found ourselves in as a state and nation. Measures were included to start the process of creating a state-based plan to help borrowers refinance student loans, just like you can with a mortgage, and increasing funding for financial aid to help address the backlog of students eligible for financial aid receiving no help.
The Evers budget also froze tuition, but in a critical break from Republican policy, would pay for the policy by upping state support for the university system to keep up with inflation and would prevent cuts to programming that ultimately hurt students.
Whether out of stubbornness, spite or simply not caring, Republicans during budget deliberations on the Joint Committee on Finance have summarily rejected the needed reforms proposed by Evers.
On the Republicans’ watch, the under-funding of financial aid programs has meant that 29,000 lower income University of Wisconsin and technical college students and 7,000 private college students eligible for aid received none. Knowing this, they voted lockstep on party lines and refused to put a single penny into rectifying this appalling state of affairs.
The evidence is overwhelming that student loan debt slows our economy and hurts the finances of Wisconsin families. Yet Republicans on a party-line vote removed from budget consideration, and refused to even allow the Finance Committee to debate, a commonsense plan to help borrowers refinance their student loans, just like you can with a mortgage.
Public support for public education was cut by record amounts, including dramatic reductions to the UW and technical college systems. Refusing to appropriate funding to either backfill these cuts or keep up with inflation has only added to a higher education financial pinch that ultimately impacts students.
Just this week, Republicans refused to reach a bipartisan agreement to fund a tuition freeze to help stave off program cuts, reductions in class offerings and potentially fewer slots at Wisconsin schools for Wisconsin students.
We already know that increasing tuition, under-funding financial aid, trapping student loan borrowers in a system that treats them unfairly and reducing public support for public education put us into a vicious debt cycle that stretches across generations, gender, race, geography and economic status.
There is no debating that $1.5 trillion in student loan debt is a national economic crisis. There ought not be any debate that it’s reform, not more of the same, that’s needed to break the cycle of debt. The good news is it’s not too late for Republicans in the state budget process to realize what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked and to say “yes” to change for the better.
Analiese Eicher is the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a statewide communications network specializing in effective earned media and online organizing to advance progressive leadership and values.
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