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Members of Governor Evers' Task Force On Student Debt Discuss Long-Term Solutions For College Affordability

Student loan relief papers on the desk.
Vitalii Vodolazskyi
Student loan relief papers on a desk.

Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Milwaukee recently announced they’re providing debt relief for any outstanding balances incurred during the 2020-2021 school year. Both institutions are using federal COVID-19 relief funds to provide the debt relief. But, it only provides a short-term solution to a larger issue.

Student debt in Wisconsin totals $24 billion, according to a 2017 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Governor Tony Evers created a task force dedicated to assessing student debt in Wisconsin and providing long-term solutions.

Karen Bauer is an attorney for a consumer protection unit at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and a member of the task force. She says the narrative around higher education needs to change.

"A lot of people have been told you have to borrow in order to get an education, that you need an education and therefore having a giant student loan debt after you graduate is just the norm. I think that we need to turn that paradigm on its head," Bauer says.

She says some key steps are to make debt relief resources more accessible and easy to understand. Silbi Isein is a UW-Milwaukee graduate student and a financial aid advisor at the university. She says educating students before they take out a loan is essential and that it's important that students understand how debt can impact them long-term. "When I hear parents who want to help pay, but they literally do not have the funding, and going out and telling [students to] go to a bank or credit union and take out a private loan with 12 ,13, 14, 15% interest, that's not too kind on a bank account or a wallet, it's not, and to tell them that it's okay to do this, or you should do this it's not a big deal - it is," Isein explains.

Although UW-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College are providing aid to students, Bauer warns this is not a new normal. She says this is a unique situation brought on by the pandemic. "But I would make the argument that if we agree that education is a public good, and I think we do, we need to fund it as such. Our public higher education institutions in Wisconsin have received decreased funding over time," Bauer notes.

"Those who spoke with me mentioned how having that debt relief allowed them to give a sigh of relief. Now they can have one less thing on their mind to be able to enroll and continue pursuing their degree," Isein acknowledges. "So it absolutely is a short term relief. Absolutely. But college and higher education shouldn't be this much it should not be this expensive ... So there needs to be that discussion of making college affordable and [making sure] those that wish to pursue higher education and a degree, can do so."

Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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