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Student Loan Debt: Wisconsin Represents Lack of National Priorities

Posted by Eli Bovarnick on

On Tuesday, an hour before the GOP presidential candidates’ debate about the economy in Milwaukee Theatre, the Milwaukee Bucks will tip-off their NBA game in the soon-to-be-replaced Bradley Center, directly across the street. As a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and for most Wisconsinites, the symbolism surrounding the debate’s location is almost too fitting.

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Earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker approved $250 million in public funds to help build a new stadium complex for the team. Meanwhile, Walker cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin System to help balance the state budget. Walker’s cuts have already forced UW schools to discontinue courses, eliminate faculty positions and buy out or lay off professors.

Although economists disputed the stadium's positive economic impact, Walker used taxpayer money after the Bucks’ billionaire hedge fund owners forced the state to spend hundreds of millions to keep the team. Wisconsin’s investment in a stadium — money that could have been used for education — highlights backward priorities for economic growth that will have negative consequences for the future of Wisconsin education.

These quarter-billion-dollar cuts are forcing the UW System to make a tough choice: raise tuition on students or sacrifice quality of education to make up the difference. Since Walker froze in-state tuition increases through 2016-17, the quality of education is suffering in the short term and tuition will have to increase in the long-term to balance the UW schools’ budget. Higher tuition and diminishing education quality are significant issues for young people across the state and out-of-state as they consider the amount of debt they might incur attending a UW campus.

Young voters in Wisconsin and all across the country want to hear solutions to challenges of rising student loan debt and increasing college tuition costs. The Wisconsin debate on economic policies provides the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls the perfect forum to put forth solutions.

Student loan debt is as much an economic issue as it is an educational one, as the rising cost of default on debt negatively affects our economy. The more graduates’ paychecks go to paying off debt, the less income these graduates have to put toward other parts of their life, such as buying a house or contributing toward their retirement savings.

Total student loan debt in the U.S. is currently $1.2 trillion. Two-thirds of students graduate from American universities with some form of debt, with the average borrower incurring almost $29,000 in debt. These numbers are daunting, and even more troubling is how declining state support will only make this problem worse. During my last year at the University of Wisconsin, the cuts had a visible effect across the university community. There were constant protests on campus against Walker’s decision and the loudest cheers at commencement were for Katie Couric’s criticism of the cuts.

The GOP candidates only scratched the surface of this issue in last month’s Colorado debate, simply offering brief responses or ineffective solutions to address the growing student loan debt crisis. Jeb Bush highlighting Florida's tuition costs as validation for increased state control was especially disappointing, since his plan does not address the broader national issue but rather extends it. While Florida students might be enjoying lower tuition, students from Wisconsin are at a disadvantage since their government favors professional sports over opportunities for students.

On Tuesday night, the GOP candidates must speak to the young people of Wisconsin and America and lay out their plan to control the skyrocketing cost of college and protect financial aid so all students who want a degree have the ability to pursue one. Candidates need to provide forward-thinking policy solutions to make college more affordable, invest in the minds of our children and support their education, rather than champion stale policies that will add to the problem.

Former candidate Scott Walker’s priorities and vision were clear with his action in Wisconsin. The American people deserve to hear the priorities of the remaining candidates on the Milwaukee Theatre stage. Luckily, the candidates need only look across the street toward the Bucks game to remind them of the necessity for this important discussion — and the consequences of misplaced priorities.

- Article written by Eli Bovarnick, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an intern with the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington D.C.

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