Lawmakers from around the country to announce debt-free college legislation

By Emma Palasz, The Badger Herald

Lawmakers from 10 states, including Wisconsin, are unifying to create legislation to help make college debt-free.

According to a statement from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, lawmakers from states that host early primary voting for the 2016 presidential election combined to create a unified Democratic message in how they are approaching debt-free college legislation.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, is heading Wisconsin’s legislation, which she will formally announce next week, according to a statement.

“As the cost to attend college increases, the American Dream is out of reach for so many hard-working, deserving people,” Shankland said in the statement. “It’s time to make a promise to anyone who wants a college degree: If you work hard, you can graduate with a degree — debt-free.”

She said Assembly and Senate Democrats will introduce a joint legislation, following nine other states’ resolutions.

According to Shankland’s statement, Wisconsin ranks third in the nation in highest number of students graduating with student debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The average college graduate from Wisconsin owes $28,000 in debt. According to the Associated Press, the University of Wisconsin System released a report revealing 74 percent of 2014-15 graduate students had an average debt of $30,650.

David Monaghan, senior researcher at Wisconsin Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education Lab, said Democratic presidential candidates have varying proposals to lessen debt once students come out of college.

He said besides those who propose policies to lessen debt for students and those who propose debt-free policies, there is also the free college movement.

The free college movement, Monaghan said, seeks not to reduce the amount of debt people have, but acts in a more direct way, offering college enrollment without tuition. Monaghan cited the free community college program that Milwaukee Area Technical College will adopt next year, where low-income students will be allowed to attend tuition-free.

“The question is whether that happens simply for low-income students or for all students, and there’s arguments for supporting both,” Monaghan said of the nationwide free college movement.

With programs aiming to lessen or end debt, Monaghan said, the question is whether to give money to the students or the institution.

The government could either aid the institution so that students do not have to pay tuition, Monaghan explained, or increase student aid such as with Pell Grants or merit scholarships for students.

But Monaghan said it is unlikely to see federal legislation supporting debt-free college because that would require bipartisan approval, which is rare in Congress.

Most of the action is at the state and local level, he said, such as MATC’s free community college program.

Monaghan said he does not know of any policies at University of Wisconsin seeking to lower tuition as of right now.

According to Shankland’s statement, Wisconsin legislators’ resolution will create a debt-free college commission and study how best to help students obtain a college degree without facing life-long debt.

“This is a basic promise we can make to everyone who works hard and plays by the rules,” Shankland said in the statement. “This is an important step in rebuilding the middle class and ensuring access to the American Dream.”

But some groups believe the notion of debt-free college is unrealistic.

Pat Garrett, spokesperson for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in an email to The Badger Herald the organization supports more reasonable solutions to college debt such as Gov. Scott Walker’s four-year tuition freeze for UW students.

“Empty promises from Washington politicians aren’t the way to properly address the growing issues of student debt,” Garrett said.