Student debt continues to rise impacting grads and their communities

State legislators and other top officials met in Onalaska to talk about how to address student loan debt Thursday. Wisconsin residents have about $24 billion in outstanding loan debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The officials with the task force met with those who have been impacted by this debt. They’re going to be studying the effects of this loan debt on individuals and their communities.

When Sarah Godlewski finished her studies at George Mason University, she had a degree, but she was also left with overwhelming debt.

“I graduated with $75,000 in student loan debt and was paying up to 9 percent interest,” said Godlewski, Wisconsin’s state treasurer.

She’s far from alone. According to the Federal Reserve’s latest data, 54% of young adults who went to college took on some debt to pay for their education. Data shows borrowing for education has increased over the past several decades.

“I really think if you look at millennials and their support system, this is a critical economic problem facing our entire generation,” Godlewski said.

The average amount of outstanding education debt in 2018 was between $20,000 and $24,999, according to the Federal Reserve. However, the average UW-La Crosse student graduates with about $27,000 of debt, according to the Institute of College Access and Success.

It’s a problem that legislators have tried to fix.

“It prevents them from buying new cars, buying new houses,” said State Sen. Jennifer Schilling, (D) La Crosse.

In 2013, State Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay first introduced the Higher Ed, Lower Debt Act. Sen. Schilling was a co-sponsor of the bill.

“That would allow individuals to refinance their student loan debt much like you can your home or automobile,” Schilling said.

The bill has been repeatedly blocked over the years. Schilling said it’s not just an important issue for the people with higher education debt, but the industries that depend on them.

“It would certainly give people more financial freedom and expendable, disposable income if they could refinance and lower those payments,” Schilling said.

Through the new Student Loan Refinancing Task Force, legislators and other officials hope to hear how this affects people throughout the state. The Department of Financial Institutions Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld, Executive Secretary of the Higher Educational Aids Board Connie Hutchison and members of the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce were expected to join Godlewski at the meeting.

“Before we jump into saying, ‘Here’s what the state should do,’ we want to make sure we listen and understand the problem to come up with a pragmatic solution,” Godlewski said.

The Task Force is holding hearings around the state. Sen. Schilling said it could potentially introduce legislation later this year before the spring floor session.

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