Walker vs. Legislators: Addressing student loan debt crisis

Some say Walker's plan is 'woefully incomplete' while others say Democratic proposal is a 'fishbowl reality'

By Vidushi Saxena, The Badger Herald

With the student loan debt crisis looming large, Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s legislators have drawn separate plans to make college more affordable.

Walker recently proposed a college affordability package, comprised of six proposals that include increasing available internships to students, giving emergency financial aid grants to technical college students, increasing Wisconsin grants for technical colleges, increasing student financial literacy and deducting student loan interests, co-author of the package Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, said.

“Hopefully, we can drive the reality home to students about what’s going on and what they’re getting into and that they make good decisions as they go along,” Murphy said.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, also introduced a higher education financial aid bill, which increases the funding for the Wisconsin Grant program by more than $30 million. This allows all students eligible for financial aid to receive grants regardless of when they filed their FAFSA, Shankland said.

Drew Anderson, post-doctoral researcher at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, said Shankland’s proposal is analogous to Walker’s proposal to increase Wisconsin grants for technical colleges but Shankland’s bill will operate on a larger scale. Walker’s bill, Anderson said, will help 500 to 1,000 students at technical colleges, while Shankland’s bill will aid 35,000 students from all backgrounds.

By cutting approximately $2 billion from public schools, colleges and universities, Shankland said Walker has contributed to the student loan debt crisis. Despite the cuts to UW, financial aid has remained the same and needs to be addressed, she said.

“We need to do more and we need to do better in terms of keeping our talented, young professionals in the state of Wisconsin,” Shankland said. “Providing need-based financial aid to Wisconsin students will keep them here and hopefully they’ll stay until college and work here and raise their kids here too.”

The two bills also differ in terms of cost. Murphy said Walker’s bill’s internship program, Wisconsin Grant for technical college students, emergency grant and student loan interest deduction would cost $500,000, $1 million, $450,000 and $5.2 million respectively. Shankland said her bill would cost less than $35 million to implement and would be put into action over a period of time not immediately.

Scott Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, said the student loan interest deductions excluded 97 percent of Wisconsin’s one million total student loan borrowers. Ross said Shankland’s bill would include a tax break that would help people save as much as $1,000.

“I would describe his [Walker’s] alleged college affordability plan in the same way I would characterize his own personal higher education experience — woefully incomplete,” Ross said.

Murphy noted, however, Walker’s emergency grant proposal went through a pilot program that resulted in a 28 percent decrease in drop out of technical college students receiving the grant. Murphy said a similar program to the financial literacy proposal in Walker’s package was implemented in Indiana, which led to a $44 million decrease in student loan borrowing in Indiana.

Murphy said implementing a bill like Shankland’s this late in the biennium would not work within the current budget and should have been added as the budget was being created.

“It’s not a fishbowl reality to add something that big to the budget at this point,” Murphy said.

UW System President Ray Cross acknowledged his support for Walker’s package in a statement. UW System spokesperson Alex Hummel said making education more accessible and affordable for students has been the focus of a number of legislators within both political parties this session. Hummel said the UW System welcomes proposals designed to help more people pursue and achieve a degree and retain their talent in Wisconsin.
Anderson said it is important to address new policies and bills like those of Walker’s and Shankland’s to see how students can best be helped. When students attend higher education institutions,Anderson said they stimulate the economy.
“I’m happy that we’re having these discussions and I think it’s good to see proposals from both sides thinking about what legislators think is important to help people get through school,” Anderson said.