Monday, January 11, 2016

Scott Walker’s college affordability plan is a joke

Walker pats himself on the back while students continue to struggle

For most of his time as governor, Scott Walker has ignored the plight of students of higher education who are dealing with massive student loan debt across Wisconsin. His major solution has been simplistic: keeping tuition frozen so that it can’t go higher.

While tuition freezes are a good start, they don’t solve the problem -- they just keep tuition at high rates. It’s like fixing a clogged sink by turning off the faucet. Any plumber will tell you that doesn’t solve the problem, and any educator will tell you that tuition freezes aren’t a solution to higher education expenses either.

Seven-in-ten students in UW System schools graduate with student loan debt (PDF), placing Wisconsin third worst in the nation when it comes to the percentage its students are left debt-ridden. On average, those students graduate with nearly $30,000 in debt.

Walker knew he couldn’t just keep saying he froze tuition and think that would allow him to save face in the state. So he released a “College Affordability Legislative Package” this week, aimed at providing some relief to students in Wisconsin.

How does Walker’s plan stack up? Though there are some positive aspects of it, the larger problem of student debt isn’t really addressed at all.

There are a couple of bills that expand grant programs for students to take advantage of, including a grant program that helps students facing financial emergencies to stay in school. Those are positive plans, and certainly there are some students who will benefit from them.

But they’re also hardly a dent in the problem overall. The bill that Walker touts to will help so-called “need-based” students will fund about 1,000 additional grants. However, last year, more than 37,000 technical college students who were eligible for the grants didn’t receive them. Doling out a small amount of grants will help a very small portion of students in dire need, and do little to help the debt crisis facing college graduates.

Yet the biggest aspect of the affordability plan that Walker brags about relies on expanding tax deductions to families paying for college. As his press release makes clear:
[T]his legislation would eliminate any cap on the tax deduction for student loan interest, which would save student loan debt payers $5.2 million annually when it is fully phased in.  This tax deduction would be the most generous of any state in the Midwest with an income tax and benefit roughly 32,000 Wisconsin taxpayers paying off student loans.
Wow, that all sounds great! But what does it translate to for most families? (Emphasis in bold mine)
This deduction also directly benefits middle class Wisconsinites with an average benefit of more than $200 annually for those making between $30,000 and $70,000.
So a middle class family sending their kid to a UW System school can save a whole $200 more in tax deductions? That’s not a huge help. It’s something, to be sure, but keep in mind that the average cost per semester for a full-time student at a university in our state is around $4,000. At $8,000 for two semesters, that $200 annual savings amounts to squat.

Just like the tuition freeze he continually says is helping Wisconsin students (it’s not), Walker’s plan for lowering college costs are completely overblown. The savings are bare minimum at best, and do little to nothing to alleviate the debts that students will have once they graduate.

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