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Ron Johnson

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, discusses topics from college costs to immigration at a town hall meeting Saturday in Verona.

VERONA – U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson met with about a dozen people at a town hall meeting at Gray’s Tied House on Saturday as part of his Wisconsin Supper Club Tour.

But first things first.

Before he took on a handful of topics from the soaring cost of higher education to immigration reform, Johnson sampled a glass of Gray’s Honey Ale.

Just one of the perks of a supper club tour, he told the sparse gathering.

After briefly discussing his new role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Republican from Oshkosh opened the floor to questions.

Asked about the rising costs of a college education, Johnson attributed much of the problem to federal government intervention.

He said that since the 1960s the cost of room, board and tuition has risen 2.6 times the rate of inflation.

“From my standpoint, you have to take a look at the fact the federal government got involved,” Johnson said. “It got involved the way it always does, it threw money at the problem. And it also created a bunch of mandates and regulations that also drives up the costs.”

Johnson said that many students find themselves deeply in debt because federal loans are too easy to get and they’re spending too much time earning degrees that aren’t in demand.

“I’m all for a liberal arts education for a certain segment if people really want it,” said Johnson, who earned his degree in accounting and business from the University of Minnesota. “But I really am more supportive of career-oriented education.

“That’s why I got an accounting degree. I wanted to learn the language of business that I could apply to all kinds of occupations, rather than a general liberal arts degree that I wouldn’t know how I would use.”

He cited studies that the average college student takes 5½ to 6 years to earn a degree. He said that’s because they don’t feel any urgency to get to work and start contributing to the economy.

“Loans are pretty easy to get and college is a lot of fun,” he said. “All three of my kids went to (UW-Madison), and I’ll guarantee you they had a really good time.”

He said universities should increase the productivity of professors and make them spend more time teaching.

“I think the solution long term is going to be things like massive online open courses,” he said. “Interject some productivity gains in education. The fact that we teach the way we’ve always taught is kind of silly.”

Responding to another question, Johnson said he considered himself an environmentalist. He’s also a proponent of using fossil fuels.

“I love to fish, I love to hike,” he said. “But we have an economy we need to power and cheap power is better than expensive power if we’re going to compete globally.”

Asked about immigration, Johnson said he puts a high priority on border security but also would like to see a functioning guest worker program to address the issue of migrant workers.

He talked about visiting the border area in Texas and was struck by how easy it is to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

“I’m for preventative fencing,” he said. “If you want to stop illegal immigration, a strong fence system would work.”

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Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.