Walters: Graduates of UW-Milwaukee leave with most debt, survey says

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Steven Walters
Monday, October 28, 2013

The latest campus-by-campus survey of student debt across the UW System found that 2011-12 graduates of UW-Milwaukee owed the most.

The average debt of UW-Milwaukee graduates was $24,158, according to the report given the System’s Board of Regents.

That was 19 percent higher than the average debt—$20,237—for graduates at 13 UW System schools that year.

And the debt disparity between graduates from different UW campuses was striking: UW-Milwaukee graduates were 53 percent more in debt than those graduating from UW-Madison, who each owed an average of $15,753.

The UW System survey also found:

-- Seventy-two percent of 2011-12 graduates borrowed—up significantly from 62 percent in 2002-03.

-- UW-Madison had the lowest percentage of graduates with debts, 60 percent; UW-Superior had the highest, 87 percent.

Why did UW-Milwaukee graduates rank first?

In a recent interview with WisconsinEye, UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mike Lovell said its students are “two to three years older” than those on traditional college campuses. Many are married with young families.

Lovell also said UW-Milwaukee students come from families with household incomes averaging about $55,000—about half of the $100,000 average household income of UW-Madison students.

“Look at the socio-economic status of our students,” Lovell said. “Essentially, their parents aren’t helping them at all, for the most part. They’re taking on loans and working 20-30 hours per week to try and pay for school.”

UW-Milwaukee graduates often stop taking classes, earn money to pay tuition and then re-enroll, Lovell said. “They have more debt to carry forward.”

UW-Madison has several other financial advantages over UW-Milwaukee. Madison gets more than $1 billion a year for research grants. It has patent and other revenues through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. And networks that cover its football and basketball games pay millions to UW-Madison.

Another UW-Milwaukee disadvantage is that 51 percent of its new students this semester required remedial English or math courses.

Democratic Sen. Nikiya Harris of Milwaukee graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 2001. She estimates it will take 10 more years to pay off her loans.

It didn’t surprise Harris that her fellow alumni had the most debt of all UW System graduates.

“UW-Milwaukee also leads the system in the percentage of minority and first-generation college students at our campus,” Harris said.

Harris said the next UW System president must be aware of the unique needs of UW-Milwaukee students.

Democratic Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa, also of Milwaukee, said she had to borrow as much as she could to graduate from UW-Milwaukee. She hopes to have her loans paid off in about eight years, by her 45th birthday.

“A lot of us were first-generation students,” Zamarippa recalled. “We just didn’t have that wealth in our homes.”

Although Zamarippa had earned college credits in English when she entered UW-Milwaukee, she had to take a remedial math class to keep taking college classes.

 “You had to pay” for that remedial class, Zamarippa noted.

Zamarippa and Harris praised the Higher Ed, Lower Debt Act, proposed by Sen. Dave Hansen and Rep. Cory Mason, both Democrats. The bill would create a new state tax deduction for payments on student loans. Wisconsin allows a tax deduction for college tuition.

For someone with $20,000 in college debt—the average for UW System graduates in 2011-12—the tax break would range from $125 to $389 a year, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated.

No estimate of what the tax break would cost was requested, however.

A “proud” UW-Milwaukee graduate, Republican Rep. David Craig said he hadn’t studied the debt issue. But Craig had another question for the UW System.

“I am puzzled as to why UW System schools would ignore our current labor demands and offer programs like dance, art history, gender and ethnic studies, folklore, music literature and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies.

“While I appreciate the interest that some may have for certain topic areas, it should not be the role of Wisconsin taxpayers to subsidize the education of those seeking an education with little to no practical value to our state or national economy.”

The report listed average debts for 2011-12 graduates on these UW campuses:

Milwaukee, $24,158; Superior, $23,705; Stout, $23,440; Oshkosh, $21,850; Whitewater, $21,222; Parkside, $20,943; Stevens Point, $20,866; Platteville, $19,979; River Falls, $19,635; La Crosse, $19,249; Green Bay, $18,856; Eau Claire, $17,814, and Madison, $15,753.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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