Democratic senators push legislation to solve student debt crisis

Posted September 19, 2016

Student loan debt has become a national crisis, but U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) says her “In the Red” legislation could fix the problem.

The national student debt total is now over $1.2 trillion, according to Baldwin. She and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) held a telephone press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 14, with student journalists from around the country.

“Degrees will push you forward, but debt will hold you back,” Warren said during the conference call. “There is legislation that could be put into effect immediately to lower the cost of college and eventually make debt-free education a reality.”

Baldwin introduced the “In the Red Act” in March. Among the co-sponsors is Warren and Minnesota’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. The bill was referred to the Senate’s Finance Committee. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in April by Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) and also referred to committee.

The measure calls for community and technical colleges, as well as minority-focused higher education, to make two-year programs free through tax increases on those at the very top of the tax brackets, Baldwin and Warren said during the press conference. The legislation also would make refinancing existing student loans more possible, and would increase the amount of federal money available for students based on how much tuition is each year, rather than stagnating.

Baldwin called the legislation reasonable, and said it needs to be passed to insure hope in future generations of college-goers.

“This measure is multi-generational,” Baldwin said. “It focuses not only on refinancing, but offers hope that in the future, students will be able to get higher education debt free, through increasing (Federal Pell Grants) during times of inflation, and accountability so that institutions don’t simply raise the cost of college without accountability. And lastly, for students looking towards higher education, we need to create a new reality for kids who too many of whom will say, it’s simply not worth it.”

Natasha Horsfall, a sophomore environmental science major at UW-River Falls, said she worries how realistic paying back all her loans right away will be after graduation, since she doesn’t have time to save money during the summer months, as she’s saving for the next semester’s tuition not covered by aid.

“My parents aren’t able to help me, so I’m in charge of paying for all that,” Horsfall said. “It’s hard to work during the school year, so I’ll have to make the majority of the money afterwards to pay back my loans.”

Though tuition at UWRF is lower than the national average, students are still strapped for the cash to pay for it out of pocket. Because of that, most students (about 75 percent) at UWRF have some type of loan, a small fraction of the 42 million students nationwide who have debt after graduation. The average federal monies awarded to a River Falls student is around $3,919 per year, according to UWRF financial aid data. At UWRF, 20 percent of students are receiving state aid, which amounts to $1,702 per year on average. UWRF students typically have about $6,747 in student loans each year.

Horsfall said that the debt issue should be more widely discussed and acted on in Congress.

“I think that it should be a top priority,” Horsfall said. “If you want society to function in the future, you need to have the backs of the youth.”

Garrett DeBuse, a senior studying history and philosophy, has money saved to pay back tuition when he graduates. He plans to take out student loans for graduate school. However, he said he thinks education is a human right and it should be more accessible to everyone.

“Education is one of those things that should just be a human right,” DeBuse said. “We’re naturally curious and naturally want to better ourselves. So putting road blocks, making it so you have to be qualified to get a higher education, doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’re limiting not only yourself but your country, your state, because now you have less educated people.”

Warren criticized Republican leadership in Congress for “denying that this is even a problem.”

“Higher education should be a path to prosperity, not a path into suffering debt,” she said. “Republican leadership must schedule a vote on the ‘In the Red Act’ immediately.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Oshkosh who serves alongside Baldwin, was not available for comment, nor were his legislative aides. However, in previous years, Johnson has been quoted in numerous settings saying he believes the federal government is in fact the reason for the student debt crisis, and that much less tax money should be allocated for federal student loans.

In May 2014, according to, Johnson stated during a town hall forum near Madison, “I’d like the federal government, over time, to remove itself from the funding mechanisms of college education. I think it’s done a great deal of hard, very unintended negative consequences.”

Johnson is facing former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, in the November general election.