“Degrees of Debt” series helps students and parents make right choice about higher education

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By Erin Eagan

The same message has been hammered into high school students’ heads for years: the only way to a high-paying job and a guaranteed spot in America’s middle-class is by getting a college degree from a four-year university. 

By now, we know this is not always the case. Instead, the only “guarantee” that awaits many of these graduates is a mound of debt.

In fact, 70 percent of college graduates in Wisconsin leave with debt, the average amount being $30,000 — a record high. The burdens of student loans leave many worried they won’t be able to support themselves once they graduate, let alone be able to buy a house or car.

The trend of increasing student debt has been especially hard on the state’s lower-income families. While the demand for financial aid is there, funding isn’t keeping up with demand.

State and federal legislators are seeking more need-based aid to combat this. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, introduced the In The Red Act bill last March will allow student loan borrowers to refinance outstanding debt at lower rates, increase Pell Grants to keep pace with rising costs and make a new investment in community college. Because most Pell Grant recipients come from household incomes under $30,000, those with family incomes just north of the Pell eligibility number are in a tough position.

The college selection process can be overwhelming to say the least. Students and parents going through it are often ill-prepared for the financial decisions they face. And we know that not understanding the consequences of too much borrowing can have disastrous results.

The “Degrees of Debt” series by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin examines the cost of college and record debt Wisconsin students are acquiring. Its goal is to provide students and parents with information to make smart choices about higher education. The series highlights students who are carrying around debt and talks about why debt is so prevalent in Wisconsin, how it differs by school and how it can be addressed.

In early 2017, there will also be “Degrees of Debt” informative sessions held for high school students and their families around the state. Keep an eye out for an event near you.