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By James B. Nelson January 8, 2016

Activist claims Wisconsin "moved from 16th to third in percentage of people with student loan debt."

The liberal group One Wisconsin Now thinks college students should be given more flexibility to deal with their student loans.

The group’s executive director Scot Ross highlighted that issue during a Dec. 13, 2015 appearance on "Upfront with Mike Gousha," a public affairs show on WISN-TV.

During a discussion about Gov. Scott Walker’s future, Ross criticized the governor’s performance on a number of fronts. Under Walker, he said, Wisconsin is "last in the Midwest in job creation" and "we've moved from 16th to third in percentage of people with student loan debt."

The lagging-in-jobs claim isn’t new.

Democratic challenger Mary Burke used versions of the claim in her unsuccessful campaign against Walker in 2014.  In March 2015, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said the state "is dead last in the Midwest for job creation." We rated that Mostly True -- the state was tied for 9th place at the time.

But what about Ross’ student-debt claim?

Have Wisconsin college students leaped up the chart in how much they owe? And is it because of Walker, as Ross implied?

When we asked Ross for backup, he wrote in an email: "I misread a number from my written show prep notes. It's 10th not 16th." He made a light-hearted suggestion at what rating he deserves, too: "Mostly Old."

Alas, that’s not a category on the Truth-O-Meter.

Ross said the data he cited came from the Institute for College Access & Success, an independent non-profit group.

The group’s 2015 report said that state students owed an average of $28,810, a level that was No. 3 in the nation based on the percent of students. Some 70 percent of state students have college debt, the report said.

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The group’s report from 2012, reflecting data from 2011, the first year of Walker’s term, said state student debt averaged $26,238 and the state had a ranking of 10th in the nation. In 2011, 67 percent of state students had loans.  

(The average amount of debt ranked 16th in the nation, which might have been the source of the confusion for Ross.)

So, while Ross got the numbers wrong, debt has increased for state students in the years Walker has been governor.

Who’s to blame?

The part of Ross’s claim that suggests student debt increased due to action by Walker is more problematic.

In August 2015, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush claimed student loan debt had doubled under President Barack Obama. That was rated Half True. Experts said the level of debt was rising before Obama took office in 2009, due to the recession and other factors beyond the president’s control.

The economic downturn pushed states to cut higher education funding, and schools increased tuition to cover costs, Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, told PolitiFact.

Since 1980, private college tuition has increased about 200 percent, while public school tuition has increased about 300 percent, with the by far the biggest jump happening since 2008, according to College Board data compiled by Heller.

The Federal Reserve put student debt nationally at about $1.3 trillion as of September 2015. That compares with $844 billion in 2010 and $640 billion in 2008, shortly after the economy crashed.

Our rating

Ross said that in the time Walker has led Wisconsin, student debt increased to third in the country. He acknowledged he got the number wrong, making the jump seem bigger than it was, but was correct that more state students have college loans.

He’s less accurate about the implication that the increase in debt is due to Walker. To be sure there have been cuts to education and the UW System under Walker, but Ross offered no evidence that those cuts drove state students debt higher. And student debt nationally has increased sharply in the years he has been in office.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Scot Ross appearance on "Upfront with Mike Gousha," Dec. 13, 2015

Emails, Scot Ross, Dec. 28, 2015

Federal Reserve quarterly report on debt, Dec. 7, 2015

One Wisconsin Now press release Dec. 30, 2015

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Scott Walker rejected bill to make student loan payments tax deductible, Hillary Clinton says," Sept. 9, 2015

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Wisconsin ‘dead last’ in the Midwest in creating jobs?" March 16, 2015

PolitiFact, "Jeb Bush: Student loan debt has doubled under Obama," Aug. 14, 2015

Institute for College Access & Success 2015 student debt report

Institute for College Access & Success 2012 student debt report

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin ranks 32nd in job growth over five years," Dec. 17, 2015

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More by James B. Nelson

Activist claims Wisconsin "moved from 16th to third in percentage of people with student loan debt."

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