Letter from Rep. Danou: Student loan debt is a major burden in Wisconsin
Last week, I joined several of my Democratic colleagues from the Senate and Assembly to talk with administrators and students from UW-La Crosse. While we talked about several different topics, the main focus of our roundtable discussion was the cost of tuition.
There was a time when young people could work a summer job and save enough money to pay for a year’s worth of college. Those days are long gone and we have a serious issue to deal with here in Wisconsin and across the country. The cost of tuition has skyrocketed within the UW System and has left current students struggling to figure out how they are going to pay for their education. Thousands take out loans to make ends meet, and as a result are left with over a decade’s worth of monthly payments. Even though there are many factors that contribute to ballooning tuition costs, the one that seems to be the most obvious is the shift of cost from the state directly to the students. According to UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow, tuition traditionally covered about one-third of a college’s budget and the rest of the money came from the state. After about a decade’s worth of budget cuts to the UW and typical tuition increases, UW-L students now pay for about 65 percent of their school’s budget. As a result, roughly 75 percent of UW-L graduates have some student loan debt, owing on average about $19,000. According to the governmental Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, there are over 38 million Americans with student loan debt that totals around $1.1 trillion. That information is troubling for people in our community and across Wisconsin. According to a recent survey done by One Wisconsin, the monthly student loan bill for a Wisconsin college graduate with a bachelor’s degree is about $350. The group surveyed nearly 2,700 Wisconsin college grads and found that it took responders nearly 20 years to pay off their student loans. On average, it took 17.2 years for a student with some college, 16.8 years for an associate degree, 18.7 years for a bachelor’s degree and 22.1 years for graduate school. That is a staggering amount of time to pay back something that took 4-7 years for students to complete. When those students enter the workforce, they are unable to do the things that keep our economy moving. Instead of saving those hundreds of dollars each month to buy a car or a house, those young adults find themselves renting and living paycheck-to-paycheck. They are less likely to go out for a Friday night fish fry and see a movie, or treat themselves to some new clothes or a new computer. The chances they are able to save money for retirement or start a family are very slim. They are also much less likely to make charitable contributions and volunteer their time to a cause because many of them pick up second jobs to make ends meet. These may sound like little things for one individual but when it applies to thousands in our state and millions across the country, we see the big impact these little things have on our economy. One way we can address the cost of tuition in Wisconsin is by providing more funding from the state budget. I firmly believe our state budget, like a family budget, is about priorities. For years, we have put more money into our prison system than our public university system. We know education brings inherent value to a community and helps us strengthen our economy in the long-run. Consequently, we should make funding the UW System top priority for us in Wisconsin because it will help us address the rising cost of tuition and prepare the next generation for the future. In the coming months, will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to not only have this necessary discussion, but also work to address this important issue for our state moving forward.