College affordability among top issues for local legislative candidates

Posted November 2, 2016

The budget cuts and tuition freezes that have hit the UW System in the past few years have made college affordability a top issue for some voters and Wisconsin State Legislature candidates in the Nov. 8 election.

Recently, the UW System Board of Regents voted to freeze tuition for another year, the fifth in a row. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $362 million has been cut over the last five years from the UW System’s state funding.

In the race for Wisconsin State Assembly District 30, three candidates will appear on the ballot: Republican Shannon Zimmerman, Democrat Scott Nelson, and independent Aaron Taylor. All three candidates have taken a stance on the issue of higher education, specifically, the issue of making college more affordable.

Nelson, who is from Hudson, said in an email that higher education is a priority issue for his campaign. To make college more affordable he wants to “allow re-financing student debt to lower interest rates. Increase the funding back to the levels they were at years ago and funnel some of those funds in keeping tuition affordable.”

One of Nelson’s opponents, Zimmerman, CEO of Sajan Inc. in River Falls, said in an email “the affordability of college is influenced by many things. We have many different participants whose needs must be considered. It would not be wise to focus solely on one of the participants. A more successful higher educational system must create a win-win for students, educators and employers.”

He said that if elected, he would like to consider different approaches “offering greater autonomy for the colleges themselves. This is likely to result in greater efficiency and indirectly have a positive impact on the costs of college. More pronounced and deeper integration with business also presents a variety of benefits to educators, students and employers which can be constructed in a way which brings financial benefit and helps make college more affordable.”

The independent on the District 30 ballot is Taylor, a 2011 graduate of UW-River Falls. He said he has tried to “think outside of the box” when coming up with ways to make college more affordable. He suggested asking communities with UW schools in them to provide a larger sum of money, or creating partnerships with business so students can commit to a job before graduation and have those businesses help pay for the student’s degree.

He added that the state legislature should allow the Board of Regents to make its own decisions instead of forcing it to follow lawmakers’ lead.

In the race for the Senate District 10, Democrat Diane Odeen faces Republican incumbent Sen. Sheila Harsdorf. Both candidates are residents of River Falls.

Odeen’s proposals to make college more affordable include stopping the cutting of state aid to UW and technical colleges. She also wants to pass the Higher Ed, Lower Debt Bill to help to lower student debt payments. The bill is sponsored Democratic lawmakers in the state legislature.

“The bill would allow individuals to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates, just like families across the border in Minnesota can,” Odeen said. “It’s a simple, commonsense solution that can save families thousands of dollars, but Sen. Harsdorf has blocked this bill. I will work to pass this legislation because families can’t afford the high student loan interest rates that are eating into their paychecks every month.”

Her opponent has a different approach.

Harsdorf said she believes that controlling the cost of college with tuition freezes is important, but graduating on time should be a higher priority. To do this, she believes that students should have more opportunities to earn college credits while in high school through dual enrollment and that internships could allow students to explore their interests and identify careers goals in order to avoid changes in majors during college.

“Additionally, this past session we passed legislation directing campuses to provide students with information regarding the costs of their student loans and anticipated repayment plan. Providing this information has been proven in other states to be helpful in reducing student debt,” Harsdorf said.

Harsdorf chairs the Wisconsin State Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges,

Students at UWRF have their own ideas for how politicians could lower the cost of college.

Cole Stark, a senior biology major, said he thinks the issue of higher education is important in the upcoming election.

“It directly affects me in this election and that’s one of the things that I’m currently having to pay the most for is my education in comparison to previous generations,” Stark said. “We have to pay a lot more, we have to go into a lot of debt.”

He said that in order to make college more affordable, politicians could raise taxes and divert money from military spending.

Lamah Bility, a freshman marketing communications major, said the issue of higher education isn’t that important to him, but he wants to see money diverted from the military as well, along with higher taxes for the rich.

Reese Johnston, a junior animal science major, said he cares about his education, but thinks that lower cost would bring more people to college for fun instead of for learning.

“I’d fully support a free tech college or two years for trade school but as far as a four-year university,” Johnston said, “it’s expensive but in the end it’s worth it to me.”

Kenna Gallegos, a freshman journalism major, said she would be willing to pay higher taxes if it meant that more people would be able to get an education.

“That’s one of the most important things to the youth and to the future of the country,” she said.