Student debt task force meets for first time amid pandemic

    The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Financial Aid office. Graduating high school students around Wisconsin are deciding if they should take on student debt. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    Nearly four months after an executive order signed by Gov. Tony Evers created the Governor’s Task Force on Student Debt, the group met — virtually — for the first time on Wednesday. 

    Made up of cabinet secretaries and government officials, educational policy experts and financial advisors, the task force was convened to recommend “how the state can best address the student debt crisis for Wisconsinites and their families.” 

    But since Evers created the task force, its job has become much harder, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused making student debt a much bigger problem. 

    After a fair amount of housekeeping for the group’s first meeting, members were given an overview of the larger crisis from Dr. Nick Hillman, a UW-Madison professor who studies higher education policy and finance and Seth Frotman, the former student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. 

    Also presenting were three Wisconsinites who shared their own personal experiences with the difficulties of student debt. 

    Hillman, who uses massive amounts of data to analyze student debt across the country, gave an overview of the crisis, the numbers behind the crisis and the intricacies task force members will need to parse as they form recommendations for the Governor. 

    “Keep in mind when you interpret a statistic, you’re not disaggregated by race, ethnicity, cost, completion, the college of the student, you name it, there’s a lot more we could explore here,” Hillman said. “[But] it’s really really helpful to sort of have this as a starting point.” 

    He ended his presentation by laying out potential policy ideas the task force could consider or keep in mind as they work through the next several meetings. He said there are four categories these policy ideas fall under: consumer protections, data and practice, subsidies and finance and regulations. 

    “But the idea here is that all these together should hopefully provide some structure to really support current and future borrowers,” Hillman said. 

    Frotman, now the executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, presented on the ways the student debt crisis is deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other educational policy experts, Frotman said he’s concerned about Oct. 1, when federal student loan payments that were paused by the CARES Act will begin again. 

    “The most important thing for you all to keep in mind is that September 30 isn’t all that far away,” Frotman said. “And on that day, the Department of Education and it’s handful of student loan companies are responsible for turning back on 35 million accounts. What really concerns me is, we have kind of seen this before, where this is kind of what happens after natural disasters like hurricanes. The government will shut off payments, and then try to turn them back on. And what we have seen time and time again, is that borrowers head out of this pause and just ended up considerably worse.” 

    While he said he doesn’t think the federal government will accomplish anything substantial toward alleviating American’s student loan debt, he thinks at the state level there can be broad, bipartisan support for measures that help people. 

    “States, unlike Washington, have found a way to tackle the student debt crisis in a really kind of apolitical, bipartisan manner,” Frotman said. 

    “I think we’ve come to a shared understanding that if you took on debt to chase the American dream to get a better life for you and your family, that you shouldn’t be ripped off in the process,”  he added.

    But following Frotman were Wisconsinites who, in one way or another, feel like they’ve been ripped off in the process. 

    Bree Stadler, a teacher who graduated from UW-La Crosse with $45,000 in student loan debt, said she was trying to work toward public service loan forgiveness. But because of a clerical error, she wasn’t signed up for that plan and most of her payments didn’t count toward paying down her debt. 

    “I’m speaking here today because I felt that the program is basically a disaster and it’s not helping the people that it’s supposed to help,” said Stadler, who added her loans are a reason she has put off having kids. 

    Tom Uecker graduated from UW-Superior as an adult and is still making payments on his student loans, while he’s also taken out Parent PLUS loans to help his daughters go to school. He said there’s not enough support for families trying to take care of  their children. 

    “At this time, there are very few options when it comes to parents trying to help their children pay for higher education,” Uecker said. “Cost of living and the cost of education do continue to rise for all families, as most wages continue to be stagnant. This situation makes it very difficult for families to save money to help with their children’s education. As a parent, I have a deep commitment to wanting better opportunities for my daughters.” 

    The next Student Debt Task Force Meeting is scheduled to be held by teleconference May 27 at 10 a.m.

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.