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Student loan debt is a national crisis, but it is also a crisis that hits Wisconsin students and graduates particularly hard. Nationally, student loan debt has ballooned to $1.6 trillion, and borrowers graduate with an average debt of $28,565 — which is up $277 from last year.

But Wisconsin grads have a higher debt load, at a whopping $31,051 per borrower. That figure placed Wisconsin 37th when ranking all states from lowest to highest debt figures, according to a study by LendEDU.

How much a student accumulates in debt over the course of their degree could depend on the school they go to, since some Wisconsin schools are doing better than others. For example, Edgewood College, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee left students with the highest average debt loads, at $38,769, $38,421 and $37,979, respectively. UW-La Crosse, UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls had the lowest average student debt per borrower figures, at $26,706, $26,800 and $27,684, respectively.

Regardless of where students attend school in Wisconsin, these high debt loads will have a significant impact on their lives after graduation, and more should be done by Wisconsin politicians to help reduce student debt in the state so that young Wisconsinites aren’t struggling with repayment.

Some state politicians have already proposed programs that could help lower student debt in the state. One of the most promising was the "Higher Ed, Lower Debt" bill that state Sen. Dave Hansen and then-state Rep. Cory Mason first introduced in 2014.

The bill would have created a public entity called the Wisconsin Student Loan Refinancing Authority, which would have helped recent graduates refinance their student loans at a lower rate. This would have likely allowed students to repay their debt more quickly or save money on interest over the life of their student loans. The program would have also paid off part or all of some graduates’ student debt.

While the proposed legislation has been introduced unsuccessfully more than once, the program would greatly benefit struggling Wisconsin borrowers and state lawmakers should continue trying to get it passed as it is definitely worth the trials and tribulations.

Another measure that would help Wisconsin student loan borrowers is to pass a Wisconsin Student Loan Bill of Rights. Similar bills have been passed in more than 10 states and protect borrowers from loan servicers taking advantage of them. It enshrines their rights to transparency around their student debt, ensuring that they’re adequately informed about everything from their loan balances to their repayment options. This gives all borrowers the information they need to make the best decisions about their loans, allowing them to lower their monthly payments or repay their student debt more quickly.

As they have been passed in other states, these types of bills also often fund an advocacy office to support students whose rights have not been respected.

Finally, Wisconsin representatives in Washington D.C. should push for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. This act, which oversees federal programs related to student loans, has been stalled in Congress for quite some time and an overhaul of the act would do a number of things, including holding schools more accountable for high student loan debt, making Pell Grants more accessible, and improving the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).

If such a reauthorization were to occur, it’s important that Wisconsin representatives push especially hard for holding specific colleges and universities accountable for a history of high student loan debt figures way above the norm. When such schools are implicated, they should be on the hook to help graduates from the school repay their student loan debt.

As a research analyst at LendEDU, Mike Brown uses data, usually from surveys and publicly-available resources, to identify emerging personal finance trends and tell unique stories. Brown’s work, featured in major outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, provides consumers with a personal finance measuring stick and can help them make informed finance decisions.

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