For months, candidates seeking office all across the country have pounded the table about how they plan to fix the economy, do or do without the Affordable Care Act, erase the deficit and so on. With only days until Election Day, the major themes of Election 2012 are clearly defined.
And a hot button issue for candidates in most races across the nation has been higher education funding and the increase in student loan debt facing the youngest generations. From time to time, candidates touch on the subject involving the people entrusted with the future of the economy and who will also be burdened with debt.
Although overshadowed by other issues, the cost of higher education has nevertheless reserved part of the national dialogue in the 2012 elections for itself. The issue has received even more prominent mainstream play over the past year after the problem reached a pair of milestones and legislators began taking action.
Alarm bells began ringing last October when USA Today reported student loan debt in America would soon eclipse the $1 trillion mark. In March, The Washington Post noted the collective arrears of American students surpassed that of credit card and automobile debt.
Then, in June, Congress voted to freeze student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent, rather than double it.
And just as those sirens began warming up last year, President Barack Obama announced he would speed up the implementation of a “pay as you earn” program aimed at easing the burden of monthly student loan payments.
The issue persists as a leading pillar of Obama’s presidential platform and it has also been adopted in similar capacity by U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, in her Senate campaign.
A survey by the Institute for College Access and Success found that 62 percent of U.S. public-school graduates in 2008 had student loans, with an average tab of $20,200. And Wisconsin’s college students have hardly avoided loans any better than the rest of the country’s up-and-comers.
For those enrolled in the University of Wisconsin System, the average debt of all graduates reached $19,043 in the 2010-11 academic year. Seventy-one percent of graduates in the System finished school with outstanding dues, representing 14,065 people.
As a result, Baldwin has been active in efforts to ease the burden of student loans.
She voted in favor of two bills in 2008 and 2009 which increased the amount of Pell grants and ended the federal funding of private lenders. She supported Obama’s “pay as you earn” measure and voted to freeze the current student loan interest rates this summer as well.
And today, in her quest to reach the Senate, her campaign identifies college affordability as a primary issue.
“Throughout her career in public service, Tammy Baldwin has made investing in education a top priority and will continue to do so in the U.S. Senate,” Brandon Weathersby, campaign spokesperson, said in an email to The Badger Herald.
According to Weathersby, Baldwin will continue to support increased public investment in higher education and will join Obama in emphasizing community and technical schools as the manufacturers of a skilled workforce.
Baldwin’s Republican opponent, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, has been mum on the subject of higher education’s affordability throughout his campaign, but holds a strong record during his time as governor for protecting the UW System.
Phone calls and emails sent to the campaign for this story were not returned. Its official website makes no mention of the issue. The two candidates completed the last of their three debates last Friday, but the topic of higher education was not raised in any of them.
Thompson’s lack of specificity on the matter comes as no surprise to UW journalism professor and expert on elections and public opinion Michael Wagner, because he said the subject of education is generally a topic the public sides with Democrats on to begin with.
Given the matter has its biggest effect on those least likely to vote, the 18-25 age range, Wagner said Thompson might not see much incentive in concentrating on it.
And, according to Marquette Law School polls, Thompson has been able to climb back from an 8-point gap and strike a tie since mid-September, despite staying quiet on higher education.
“Another reason might be that he doesn’t think very many people will be basing their vote on that issue,” Wagner said. “It costs money and time to get people’s attention and he wants to focus on issues that are going to be voting issues.”
Still, Thompson’s lack of discourse on public education and student loan debt during this election cycle might not be entirely reflective of the work he would do for students if elected to office.
Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an expert on the history of Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities, said Thompson holds a positive record with the state’s universities as governor from 1987-2001.
According to Radomski, Thompson allocated more money toward state financial aid programs as tuition costs continued to rise. He added Thompson also worked closely with the construction of the state’s 529 plan, a program for parents to save money for their children’s’ looming college tuition.
Radomski conjoined the two by saying the efforts represented one of Thompson’s three major accomplishments with the state schools over his tenure.
“I think people were pleased because when there was not a deficit, he did put more money into the UW System,” Radomski said. “And second, when the economy would go south, because we had several recessions during his period, he didn’t cut [funding from the] UW System as much as people predicted he would. I think he was a supporter of higher education, but I think, also, it was tied more to economic development.”