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A higher education provides students with the freedom and opportunity to live a prosperous life.

In today’s global economy, we need an educated workforce and — ever increasingly — a college degree has become a prerequisite in our competitive economy. Our young people know that in order to be successful they must obtain some form of higher education. The youth of our state have shown their willingness to take on the workload of college, but too many students who show real talent are unable to pay for the ever increasing costs associated with earning a degree.

Earlier this year, it was widely publicized that average household incomes have fallen across the state of Wisconsin. Our neighbors are seeing their take-home pay go down and the cost of higher education go up. The simple truth is that many of Wisconsin’s brightest students are being priced out of an education, and as a result Wisconsin’s skilled workforce is dwindling.

Nationally, we have seen the cost of college rise more than 250 percent over the last three decades, making it nearly impossible to complete college without incurring debt. Wisconsin is ranked third in the nation for student loan debt with over 70 percent of our students graduating with an average of $29,000 of debt.

It is completely counterproductive to our country’s and our state’s best interests to continue a system that ties the hands of our future leaders. Our shared Wisconsin values insist that the opportunity to succeed is a freedom that hardworking Wisconsinites deserve. We can no longer afford to suffocate our next generation’s future with crushing student loan debt, which hinders our state’s economic growth and prevents graduates from realizing their dreams. This is why we announced our plan to bring debt-free college to Wisconsin.

Our plan allows students who work hard and play by the rules to have a real opportunity to succeed in our state. It applies to students enrolled at least half-time in our state’s public technical colleges, four-year universities, and tribal colleges. This legislation creates a grant program in which students who sign up commit themselves to obtaining a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0 and remaining gainfully employed in Wisconsin for at least three years after graduation. In exchange for this commitment, the state will pay for tuition, housing, fees, and books throughout that student’s higher learning.

Let us be clear: This is a hand up, not a handout. If a student does not fulfill their commitment, their account transfers into a loan at 5 percent interest.

Under this plan, Wisconsin’s youth will have increased freedom that does not exist in our current system plagued by student loan debt. This is not the freedom to live a life of luxury. It is simply the freedom to live the American dream. It is our goal to allow our young people to be able to save up to buy a house, a new car, and to spend money in our local communities.

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This program would be a true investment that our state makes for the next generation of Wisconsinites and is a clear solution to the college debt crisis we have been facing for some time.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, and Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, are members of the Wisconsin Legislature.

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