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“. . . If a tree falls in the forest. . .”

The student debt crisis is real, and its implications for individual graduates are serious. While the average undergraduate student debt for a four-year degree program in Wisconsin is $28,128, it is less than the average price of a new car, which is $33,560. Unlike a car, which depreciates the minute you drive it off the lot, a college degree pays dividends in terms of increased life-long earnings, regardless of major.
Of course, when there are averages, there also will be extremes. Individuals who choose to borrow more, but are not earning enough after graduation to keep current with their payments, may not realize that there is a program with Wisconsin roots already in place to help them. The sad fact is that a majority of the students do not know the program exists and do not take advantage of it. Hence the headline drawn from an old philosophical conundrum, “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The federal Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that relatively few student loan borrowers were participating in the income-based repayment programs. Former US Representative Tom Petri of Wisconsin was one of the authors of this program. According to the GAO report, the US Department of Education (USDE) has not done enough to make borrowers aware of their repayment options. The existing income-based repayment program, known as pay as you earn, recently expanded in response to a June 2014 directive from the Obama administration. The expansion allowed borrowers to cap monthly payments at 10 percent of discretionary income and be provided complete loan forgiveness after 20 years. According to the GAO report fewer than one in seven holders of direct student loans were paying them back based on their income levels, while more than half were eligible for the programs that would allow them to do so. WAICU-member colleges and universities are doing their part to make students aware of their options.
The other good news is that, as our graduates get jobs, their default rates decline. Nationally, 11.8 percent of graduates default; in Wisconsin, it is 9.2 percent; at WAICU members—which actually enroll higher percentages of low-income students than public campuses—the default rate is 4.4 percent.
If you know a student for whom this income-based repayment program would make a difference, encourage them, and even if you don’t, be encouraged yourself that there are bipartisan solutions already in place—if we would just use them.