Wisconsin Democratic lawmaker joins national push for debt-free college

By Jessie Opoien, The Capital Times

Wisconsin would form a commission to study how to make college debt-free for prospective students under a proposal Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, plans to introduce next week.

The commission would be composed of experts on higher education access and affordability, workforce development experts and economists. It would be charged with studying college affordability, determining the best approach for the state and presenting its findings to the Legislature, Shankland said.

Most conversations about the issue look at a three-pronged approach of state support, federal support and policies like work-study requirements.

"It's really a study to determine how best we could make Wisconsin 'open for talent,'" Shankland said. "And we have a brain drain crisis in our state. We’re seeing talented people leave."

Shankland is one of 10 state legislators throughout the country introducing similar initiatives, through an effort organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. 
"In order to make sure graduates stay in-state, we need to have strong policies that honor their hard work," Shankland said.
Other states included in the push are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Ohio, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri and South Dakota.
College affordability has become a 2016 campaign issue and a source of debate for Wisconsin legislators.
While Shankland's proposal is directed at prospective students, Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, have tried unsuccessfully in two consecutive legislative sessions to pass a bill creating a state student loan refinancing authority.
Since Mason's and Hansen's bill was first introduced last session, the number of Wisconsinites with student loan debt has grown from 753,000 to 815,000, and the average debt for someone with a bachelor's degree has increased from about $22,000 to $28,400. Total student debt carried by Wisconsin residents is a little more than $19 billion, according to White House figures.
Several state Republicans agreed during a November debate on the bill that student loan debt is a problem in need of a solution, but shot down Mason's and Hansen's proposal.
A memo prepared for Shankland by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that Wisconsin has the third-largest projected decrease in state support for higher education from 2014-15 to 2015-16, both in dollars and percentage change. 
A study conducted by the Institute for College Access and Success found that 70 percent of Wisconsin graduates have student loan debt, the third-highest percentage in the nation.