Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, fired back on Thursday at comments her Republican counterpart, Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh, made about college affordability earlier this week.
"Today — there are different studies on this — but somewhere between five-and-a-half to six years is the average length of time it takes somebody to get a four-year degree. Why is that? I'd argue, well, loans are actually pretty easy to get, and college is a lot of fun," Johnson said Saturday at a town hall meeting at Gray's Tied House in Verona. "All three of my kids went to Madison, and I guarantee you, they had a really good time, particularly that first year of college."
Some of Johnson's remarks were initially reported on Saturday by the Wisconsin State Journal. The comments resurfaced on Thursday when The Hill reported on a video from the event taken by the liberal opposition research group American Bridge.
Johnson contrasted current four-year graduation rates and college costs with his time in college. The difference, he said, is that the federal government inserted itself into the process and, despite good intentions, ended up hurting students' pocketbooks.
"I was spending my own money to get that education. I didn't want to linger in college," Johnson said, adding that some students might see loans as free money. "Young people don't necessarily understand finance."
The senator, who is up for re-election in 2016, said it's good for people to get as much education as they can, but that needs to be balanced with what a student can afford to pay, both up front and in loans after graduation.
"The students I talk to who are looking at incurring debt during their studies are certainly not prolonging their time in college," Baldwin said in an interview Thursday. "They're doing everything they can to minimize their student debt. They're working at the same time."
Baldwin added that sometimes taking on a job(s) to pay for college can slow down a student's graduation timeline, but that's not an intentional slowdown.
"There's clearly a student debt crisis in America right now," Baldwin said. "We're finding the student debt burden is really holding a generation of students back."
Johnson and Baldwin agree on that, but not much else when it comes to student loan debt.
Nationwide student debt levels are at an all-time high at $1.2 trillion, up 84 percent since the recession.
That debt is held by 40 million Americans, up from 29 million in 2008.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 812,000 Wisconsinites have federal student loans. They owe more than $18.2 million — an average of about $28,000 per person. Those figures don't include those with private debt.
One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross said Johnson's comments added "insult to injury" for Wisconsin's student loan borrowers.
"He not only voted against a common sense plan to allow borrowers to refinance their student loans just like you can a mortgage, he also felt it appropriate to blame them for the crisis," Ross said.
That plan is a proposal introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and sponsored by Baldwin. Introduced as separate legislation, the senators also proposed it as an amendment to the Republican budget resolution.
The proposal would have allowed student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at interest rates from the 2013-14 academic years — significantly lower than the rates currently paid by many with student debt.
Senate Republicans defeated the amendment on Wednesday.
"Ron Johnson's ignorant and out-of-touch comments are the ultimate insult to every student who works hard in school, holds down a job, and still graduates with thousands of dollars in debt," said College Democrats of Wisconsin spokesman Joe Waldman. "Instead of blaming young Wisconsinites for our state's student loan debt crisis, Sen. Johnson should be working to solve the problem. Unfortunately, since being elected to the Senate, Sen. Johnson has voted against every single common sense measure to lessen the burden of student debt."
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said Johnson's remarks demonstrate that he is "out of touch" with middle-class families.
Johnson has a reported net worth of $13.5 million, making him the 30th wealthiest member of Congress by Roll Call's 2014 rankings.
"Johnson has no idea what reality is like for middle class families in Wisconsin who, despite working harder than ever, have seen the worst drop in income of any state in the country. You shouldn't have to be a millionaire like Ron Johnson to be able to help your kids go to college," Baldauff said.
A spokeswoman for Johnson's office responded to a request for elaboration on his position by pointing to the full video of his remarks, which includes comments not reported on.
The senator said in Verona that the federal government has "enticed" students to incur debt by subsidizing loans.
Part of the solution to college affordability, he said, is changing the way education is delivered. Options like massive online open courses (MOOCs) should be further explored, he said.
"We have all this information technology, the fact that we continue to teach the way we've always taught is kind of silly," he said.
High school graduates should also be encouraged to pursue options like technical colleges or two-year associates programs, he said — or even taking a few years to work before deciding on schooling.
He spoke against "throwing money" at the problem.
Baldwin also advocates for technical and community colleges, but her approach differs.
She introduced on Thursday a budget amendment that would make two years of community college free for high-achieving students. That program, like the loan refinancing proposal, would be funded by implementing the "Buffett Rule," which would require millionaires to pay at least a 30 percent effective tax rate.
The proposal was floated by President Barack Obama in January during his State of the Union Address.
"I think this would be such a huge investment in our nation's economic growth," she said.
The number of student loan borrowers throughout the country doesn't trail far behind the number of Americans receiving Social Security benefits. According to the Social Security Administration, more than 59 million received Social Security benefits in 2014. More than 55 million people receive health insurance through Medicare -- about 46 million people ages 65 and older, and 9 million people with permanent disabilities under age 65. Forty million people throughout the country have at least one outstanding student loan.