Support the Higher Ed, Lower Debt Bill

by Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW

One of the biggest challenges confronting young social work professionals is the high debt load they carry compared to average social work salaries.  In 2007 NASW WI conducted a survey of its student and transitional members.  Transitional members have graduated with a BSW or MSW within the last three years.  In this survey we found that the median debt load for BSW transitional members was $20,000-$24,999.  The median debt load for MSW transitional members was $30,000-$39,999.  $30,000-$39,999 was also the average salary for these BSW graduates.  The average salary for the BSW transitional members was $25,000-$29,999.

According to One Wisconsin Now, 753,000 Wisconsinites have federal student loan debt and tens of thousands more have debt from private loans for their schooling.  One Wisconsin Now estimated that Wisconsin residents paying student loans from obtaining a bachelor’s degree are paying an average of $388 per month for an average of 18.7 years. On a national level nearly forty million Americans carry over 1.2 trillion in student loan debt.

This student debt load clearly has a negative impact on our economy as young people with high debt load are generally unable to purchase houses, new cars and other consumer items.  For the social work profession, this type of debt load can lead to some of our best social workers leaving the profession to make more money in another line of work.

There is a policy initiative in Madison that if initiated could bring significant relief.   In the past legislative session State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and State Representative Cory Mason (D-Racine) introduced Senate bill 376, the Higher Ed Lower debt bill.  The bill would allow Wisconsin’s student loan borrowers to deduct their student loan payments from their income tax, resulting in individual tax savings of approximately $179 for the typical borrower or as much as $531 annually.  It would enable Wisconsin’s student loan borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates, potentially saving them hundreds of dollars. It would also provide students and parents with detailed information about student loans, the best and worst private lenders and ensure that student receive loan counseling so that student loan borrowers can make informed financial decisions about student loans. 

At the State Senate hearing on Senate Bill 376 this past February, I testified on behalf of NASW WI and provided information on the impact of the debt load crisis on social work students and practitioners.

Senate Bill 376 was endorsed by every single Democratic State Senator and State Representative, a rare occurrence. Unfortunately not a single Republican State Senator or Representative was willing to co-sponsor the bill.  Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has endorsed the goals of the bill but Governor Walker has not done so.

I would urge NASW WI members and social workers and social work students in general to make student debt load a big campaign issue.  If you attend a candidate’s forum ask the candidates if they would agree to sponsor this bill when it is reintroduced.   If they say no, ask them what they specifically plan to do to lower student debt load payments.  I would also suggest that NASW WI members write letters to the editor for their local newspaper about this issue, urging candidates to sign on to this bill.  At the NASW WI office we will be developing a template for such a letter.  Please contact me at the chapter office (marcherstand@naswi.org or 608-257-6334) if you would be willing to send such a letter to your local newspaper.