College is full of necessary evils — walking to class in the rain, subsisting solely on cup noodles, actually buying your textbooks. But perhaps the most pervasive, most potentially devastating and least funny of these evils is student loans, and subsequently, student debt.
The student debt crisis is reaching an all-time high. Roughly 43 million American adults — around one-sixth of the U.S. population older than age 18 — owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. That statistic does not count the estimated $119 billion in student loans from private, non-governmental sources.
Wisconsin is not immune to the student debt crisis either. Our state ranks 21st for average student loan debt at $29,569. Sixty-four percent of Wisconsin students have some sort of debt, ranking us sixth in the nation, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
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As long as this crisis has been stewing, so has the quest for a solution — namely, a statewide student loan refinancing authority. Ideally, this state-run agency would help students refinance their federal or private loans at a lower interest rate, similar to loans taken out on a house or a car. The Higher Education, Lower Debt bill, backed by several Wisconsin Democrats, tried to establish such an institution, but the bill was struck down in 2015, reintroduced and blocked repeatedly ever since.
However, a refinancing authority may not be as far away as we think. In his recently-passed 2019-2020 budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers created an advisory group tasked with studying the development and effects of a state-run student loan refinancing authority. The Student Loan Refinancing Task Force, comprised of Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Department of Financial Institutions Secretary-designee Kathy Blumenfeld and Executive Secretary of the Higher Educational Aids Board Connie Hutchison, held its first round table event last month. Three similar events will take place throughout the summer and the task force is set to make a recommendation to the governor and legislature by Oct. 1, 2020.
The biggest conclusion Godlewski gathered from this first meeting was that people take out student loans for a variety of reasons and people struggle to pay those loans back for a variety of reasons. The Student Loan Refinancing Task Force is the first step of Wisconsin’s search for a holistic solution for the student debt crisis, in which state-run student loan refinancing may or may not be a part. Just as the reasons for the student loan crisis are variate, so should the remedies.
Besides student loan refinancing, there are still quite a few ways the state can lighten the burden of student loans. Similar to bills S.460 and H.R.1043, which were introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, Wisconsin legislators could create tax incentives for employers to help pay back student loans. Such a measure would encourage people to stay in Wisconsin after graduation or even attract graduates from other states.
Similarly, part of the student debt crisis may be due to a lack of financial literacy. Discussion from the first task force meeting illustrated this point perfectly.
“We heard from people who came early on and said, ‘I wish I would have had better counseling to let me know that 9 percent interest was high or I would have lost my federal benefits if I were to refinance,’” Godlewski said.
Greater outreach and financial literacy education may help close the gap. University of Wisconsin students have access to this help through the Office of Student Financial Aid, which offers in-person financial advising and online programs to create a college education financing plan.
The solution to the student debt crisis might be ambiguous at the moment, but easing one’s student loan debt benefits the borrower, and to an extent, the rest of Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said.
“If students know or people just graduating from college know they can come to Wisconsin to further their career and have an opportunity to lessen their burden of student loan debt so that they can make other decisions like purchase a home, purchase a car, start a family, move out of their parents’ house that will be very substantial for the entire state,” Barnes said.
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Though not every student borrower is in crisis, student debt is an issue that can have severe effects on borrowers’ lives and raises greater concerns over the health of the general economy. Evers’ budget and the work of the Student Loan Refinancing Task Force show great commitment to Wisconsin’s students and graduates. But the solution to the student debt crisis is not cookie-cutter to everyone and it is not an immediate fix — alternative approaches to tackling the student debt crisis on a state and individual level must be looked at as well.
Abigail Steinberg ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and journalism.