It’s college graduation time, and while it’s a happy occasion for the graduates and their families, it comes at a high price.
According to the most recent national statistics available, 71 percent of college seniors from the class of 2012 had student loan debt averaging $29,400 for a bachelor’s degree. Based on the trend over the last two decades, members of the class of 2014 can expect to find themselves in even worse shape.
On May 14 in Madison, on the eve of graduation celebrations, One Wisconsin Now hosted a town hall meeting on the UW campus to discuss the $1.2 trillion student debt crisis in which many of these new grads will become ensnared. Joining in the lively discussion were U.S. Representative Mark Pocan, State Senator Dave Hansen and State Representative Cory Mason--champions at the national and state level for restoring fairness for student-loan borrowers and taking strong action to stem the ever-deepening debt crisis.
One Wisconsin Institute presented research showing that student debt is a big drag the economy.
Ann DeGarmo, a student graduating from UW-Madison, who lives in Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’s district, tearfully spoke graduating with more than $50,000 of student loan debt. She said her hope is to move on to law school to become a lawyer fighting for the rights of workers, but with so much debt already, she's fearful about her future.
First-generation college student Saul Newton told of having to drop out of UW-Stevens Point because tuition had jumped $1,600 in his first two years. Newton enlisted in the Army and was dispatched to Afghanistan in 2010. Thursday night, he told the audience that while he was on patrols in Kandahar Province he was worrying about how he would make his student loan payments. Thanks to the GI Bill, Newton is back in college at UW-Waukesha. "Students shouldn't have to go to war just to get a college education,” he said.
Fitchburg Mayor Shawn Pfaff talked about the need for student loan reforms. As the mayor of one of the state's fastest-growing cities, he said it was critical that young people are able to purchase homes to strengthen their communities. Pfaff, who paid off his student loans just a few years ago around his fortieth birthday, said he was deeply concerned by One Wisconsin Institute's research showing those with student loan debt were twice as likely to be renters or living with someone else, as opposed to having a home of their own.
To keep the town hall from sinking into a virtual “despair fair,” forward-thinking legislators shared their policy prescriptions with the crowd.
U.S. Rep Mark Pocan, author of legislation to allow refinancing of federal student loans, spoke about efforts to enact reform at the federal level.
“Two-thirds of Americans now leave college drowning in debt, unable to achieve their dreams or contribute to the economy in a meaningful way,” said Pocan. “Instead of relying on college graduates to bankroll Washington’s needs, the federal government should be doing all that it can to make a college education as affordable and accessible as possible.”
State Rep. Mason and State Sen. Hansen, who co-authored the first in the nation state-based solutions to the student loan-debt crisis, discussed its merits. “The Higher Ed, Lower Debt Act offers common sense solutions to this economic crisis,” Mason said. “Borrowers ought to be able to refinance their loans, just like you can a mortgage, and students and their parents ought to have information they need to make good decisions.”
Sen. Hansen added: “Borrowers aren’t asking for a handout. But they deserve a system that treats them fairly and gives them the shot at the middle class they’ve earned by working hard and taking on the personal responsibility of paying for their education.”
By Scot Ross, the Executive Director of One Wisconsin Now. He was a student loan debtor until the age of 44, making his final payment June 14, 2013, on the birthday he shares with Fighting Bob La Follette.