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Tuition, Debt Increase at Technical Colleges in Wisconsin

APPLETON, Wis. ― Tuition and debt have jumped at Wisconsin’s technical colleges, which are supposed to provide a more affordable option for career training than four-year universities or for-profit schools.

The Post-Crescent reported that U.S. Department of Education figures show many tech school students are facing bigger financial challenges than a few years ago.

At Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, tuition and fees increased by about 25 percent in the past 10 years. The average amount borrowed by graduates of the school jumped by about $5,300 from 2007 to 2015.

Northcentral Technical College also saw an increase in cost for the average student, jumping from $6,200 to $9,600, according to the U.S. Department of Education. College officials believe the spike stems from a shift in off-campus housing prices and increase in the number of students seeking housing.

But experts said the rising price tag isn’t necessarily what leads to financial struggles for community college and technical students. Of the students who take out loans, most borrow less than $10,000, and those who don’t repay loans often owe less than $5,000.

“Research shows a lot of community college students who don’t repay loans only enrolled in about a semester of courses,” said Nicholas Hillman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor who studies student loan debt. “Dropping out with no degree and debt is a problem. The typology of the student borrowing a whole lot ― say to go to medical school – is not as big of a policy problem as the students who are borrowing because they have no other options. I worry about the small borrowers.”

Conor Smyth, a spokesman for Wisconsin’s technical college system, said comparing default rates of two-year colleges to schools in other sectors of higher education is unfair due to the different populations they serve. Anyone can enroll in tech schools and students tend to be older, poorer and less educated.

“Our (default rate) average is still below the national average for two-year colleges,” Smyth said. “If we started to see that change, then the level of concern would start to increase beyond our normal level of concern about affordability and indebtedness.”

Smyth said rising student costs and debt loads have been on the radar of system leaders for years as they have repeatedly sought additional state aid, but received only stagnant support.

“Need-based financial aid isn’t keeping pace,” he said. “Our board is very much aware of this conversation every time they are tasked with setting tuition to colleges.”

To help provide relief to students, Hillman suggested lawmakers could consider making the first semester of community college free to make sure students stick with their higher education.

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