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State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, advocated for student loan debt reform on a call with state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay.

As college students prepare to move into their residence halls and start classes, Wisconsin Democrats are calling attention to college affordability and student loan debt.

"Student loan debt continues to be something that really cripples the middle class in the state as they continue to work harder and fall further and further behind," said state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, during a conference call Tuesday.

Mason and state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, spoke with reporters about legislation they introduced last fall that would allow student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at a lower rate.

Under current law, student loans can be consolidated — but unlike car, home and personal loans, they can't be refinanced.

All 54 Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature signed on in support of the bill. It received no Republican support.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Congress, co-authored by U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in the Senate, and authored by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, in the House.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has made student loan debt a key focus in her state jobs plan. Her proposals include creating a state authority to help borrowers refinance their loans, increasing the amount of a state tax deduction for tuition and allowing borrowers to deduct student loan payments from their state taxes.

"We know that roughly two-thirds of new jobs in the next decade will require education beyond high school," Burke said in a statement. "That's why making higher education and skills training more affordable has to be one of our highest priorities. Wisconsin students have everything it takes to compete for the jobs of the future, but we need to be doing everything we can to reduce the financial burden that they graduate with. More money in the pockets of Wisconsin's students and families also means more money being spent in Wisconsin's economy."

Mason and Hansen echoed that sentiment during the call. Student loan debt isn't a burden that falls solely on the individual who holds it, Mason said, adding that the impact ripples into the broader economy.

Research from One Wisconsin Institute, the research arm of 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.

The OWN research also found that graduates with bachelor's degrees take an average of nearly 19 years to pay off their student debt, and those with associate degrees take an average of nearly 17 years to complete their payments. More than 800,000 Wisconsinites and nearly 40 million individuals nationwide have outstanding federal student loans. That doesn't include those with private loans.

"We must get away from education being placed on the backs of students living the American dream, trying to better themselves," Hansen said. "The debt that they’re incurring is absolutely wrong."

University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Dan Stevenson joined the lawmakers on the call, briefly sharing his own experience with student debt.

Stevenson said he grew up in a working middle-class family, and worked through high school and college to save for his education. His mother finished paying off her own college loans this year, he said.

Stevenson will graduate with $20,000 in student debt. The average student in Wisconsin owes $22,460 in loans after graduating.

"I worry about being able to pay this back," Stevenson said, adding that even if he finds a good job, he'll struggle to pay back his debt.

Gov. Scott Walker, addressing college affordability, has called for an additional two-year tuition freeze for the UW System in the 2005-17 budget.

"After years of tuition hikes, it is important to give our students and their families a break," Walker said in an April statement. "Our proposed second two-year tuition freeze will go a long way to helping working families and students have access to higher education. This freeze continues our commitment from the last budget to make college more affordable for working families and students across our state."

UW System officials have asked for an additional $95 million in the next state budget, $27 million of which would go toward offsetting the effects of the freeze. The governor has not indicated how he'll respond to the request.

Mason and Hansen countered that a tuition freeze doesn't address the issue properly.

"It's an election-year stopgap measure, but it doesn't do anything to address affordability going forward for prospective students," Mason said, adding that it also doesn't offer relief to those who have already graduated.

A town hall meeting held by One Wisconsin Now, Mason, Hansen and Pocan will be featured in a PBS NewsHour segment on student loan debt in Wisconsin. The segment, part of the show's "Rethinking College" series, will air on PBS on Tuesday at 6 p.m., and can be viewed online.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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