MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Russ Feingold sees his plans for lowering college student loan debt as one of the key issues differentiating himself from Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson in their hotly contested U.S. Senate race.
Both candidates offer sharply different views on how to control college costs, with Feingold advocating for lowering interest rates on student loans and Johnson pushing for more fundamental changes to higher education.
It was one of the first issues Feingold focused on more than a year ago when he launched his comeback candidacy, looking to avenge his 2010 loss to Johnson when college loan debt was almost never discussed.
Now, six years later, what to do about skyrocketing student loan debt is being talked about at all levels of politics, from the presidential race on down.
“You can see these trends,” Feingold told The Associated Press. “It came up sometimes in previous years, but the difference is night and day now. It is something that is really upsetting people. When you mention it to an audience and you see people nodding about it.”
Johnson argues he’s been falsely attacked on the issue. He notes that he joined with Democrats to support extending the life of the Perkins loan program, which provides need-based, low-interest loans to low-income college students.
Still, Johnson advocates not for creating a new program allowing for loan refinancing but rather for better using the dozens of federal incentives already available. He’s also pushing for a broader look at higher education costs.
“The thing we need to address is college affordability,” he told AP.
The average college graduate in 2015 had $30,100 in debt, according to the nonprofit advocacy group the Institute for College Access and Success. It found that 68 percent of students nationwide graduate with some level of debt.
In Wisconsin, the average debt for a college graduate last year was $29,460, according to the report. Seventy percent of graduates in the state had some level of debt.
Nationally, student loan debt has risen to $1.3 trillion. Of that, about $19 billion is in federal student loan debt to about 800,000 people.
One Wisconsin Now, a liberal advocacy group based in Madison, was one of the earliest advocates for addressing the student loan debt issue and has been at the forefront of pushing for allowing loan refinancing, both nationally and in Wisconsin.
“To see a race which could decide control of the U.S. Senate feature so prominently the issue of student loan debt reform and refinancing is incredibly satisfying, but also a good sign how effective the issue can be in mobilizing voters,” said One Wisconsin Now’s director Scot Ross.
Ross called student loan debt “the new third rail of American politics.”
Feingold sees the issue as one of the most important to working and middle class voters he’s trying to attract. He stopped at more than a dozen Wisconsin college campuses during the campaign, talking with students about the issue and possible solutions.
“The gulf between me and Sen. Johnson on this is simply enormous,” Feingold said. He called the burgeoning student loan debt a crisis.
Feingold supports allowing college students with federal student loans to refinance them at the same low interest rates banks offer. The issue has been championed by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who campaigned with Feingold in Madison earlier this month.
Feingold also supports states offering free tuition at two-year community and technical colleges.
Johnson opposes refinancing of free tuition and has been outspoken about the government being involved with college loans at all. He’s branded Feingold a hypocrite on the issue of lowering college costs, citing his pay of $150,000 for teaching two courses last year at Stanford University.
Johnson’s campaign calculated that Feingold earned about $7,900 per class, the type of salary he argues drives up college costs, an attack that Feingold dismissed as ridiculous and an attempt to divert attention from the real issue.
Johnson has long been critical of the government’s role in college student loans, even though he did support a bill signed into law by President Barack Obama that ties the interest rates on federal student loans to the financial markets.
“What I support is helping anyone who wants a college education to give them the opportunity to do so,” Johnson told AP.
But in 2015, Johnson said that the federal government “never should have gotten involved in student loan programs.” And in 2014, Johnson claimed that students from rich families are “taking advantage of all these student loan programs and grants,” leaving middle-class families to pick up the cost.
And, in comments from a 2015 town hall that Feingold has been happy to refer to through the campaign, Johnson called student loans “just kinda free money.” He went on to say that “young people don’t necessarily understand finance.”
Johnson advocates for more fundamental changes to make colleges and universities more affordable. He’s talked about breaking up the higher education “cartel” and embracing technology as a way to become more efficient. He also supports increasing the number of for-profit colleges.
But Johnson had to backpedal earlier this year when he said productivity in the classroom could be improved if the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the Civil War was shown to teach the subject. Burns tweeted, “I’m here to support teachers, not replace them.”
Johnson said his comments were misunderstood and he was not advocating for replacing teachers with DVDs.
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