Mostly True
Says U.S. Senate opponent Ron Johnson "is opposed to all government-assisted student loans."

Russ Feingold on Friday, June 5th, 2015 in a speech

Ron Johnson is against all government-assisted student loans, U.S. Senate rival Russ Feingold says

U.S. Sen. Johnson, who faces a re-election challenge from former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in 2016, has criticized the federal government's role in student loans. (Mike DeSisti photo)

One of the first shots Democrat Russ Feingold took at Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, after announcing he would try to retake his old U.S. Senate seat, was over student loans.

"Just because (college) costs keep going up, that doesn’t mean we can allow the four-year degree to become the sole province of the rich," Feingold said June 5, 2015 at the Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Milwaukee.

"My opponent is opposed to all government-assisted student loans."

Is he?

Feingold’s evidence

To be sure, Johnson has been critical of the government’s role in student loans.

In May 2014, he said kids from affluent families are "taking advantage of all these student loan programs and grants," while many middle-class families with no connection to college are picking up the tab -- a claim we rated Mostly False.

But Feingold’s claim is absolute -- that Johnson opposes all government-assisted student loans.

A Feingold spokesman referred us to Max Croes, a researcher for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. He cited three statements that go beyond Johnson criticizing the loan program.

"Should never have gotten involved"

At a May 2015 town hall meeting in Oconto, Johnson said:  

"I think we’ve done a huge disservice to our young people by enticing them into getting into debt. And, of course, college and universities, they’ve loved it. It helped fill their programs, it helped fill their campuses. It helped them build all kinds of beautiful campus buildings."

After an audience member interjected, Johnson added: "I will say the federal government never should have gotten involved in student loan programs."

"Shouldn’t be involved"

In a videotaped interview in 2012 with the Daily Cardinal, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student newspaper, Johnson was asked if he supported extending what was then a 3.4 percent interest rate for student loans.

(Congress had recently agreed to keep the discounted rate in place for another year on some federal student loans, rather than allowing the rate to double to 6.8 percent.)

Johnson replied:

"No. No. Why are we encouraging our young people to get into debt, first of all? Why is the federal government even making money off the loans? Why is the federal government even involved in the student loan program? I have multiple problems with that.

"Again, for all you young people who agree with (former GOP presidential candidate) Ron Paul in terms of the limited constitutional government -- the federal government shouldn’t even be involved in granting student loans."

"I’d like the government to get out"

At a town hall meeting outside of Madison in May 2014, Johnson blamed the federal government for encouraging college students to take on debt they can’t afford, according to a report from Wisconsin Public Radio.  

"I'd like the federal government, over time, to remove itself from the funding mechanisms of college education," he said after the meeting. "I think it's done a great deal of harm – very unintended negative consequences."

Johnson’s response

Johnson’s staff responded to Feingold’s claim by telling us it "is patently and demonstrably wrong," but cited only Johnson’s support of one piece of legislation.

In July 2013, Johnson voted for a measure, later signed into law by President Barack Obama, that ties the interest rates on federal student loans to the financial markets. That is, if rates on Treasury notes rise, so would student loan rates.  The upshot was that the law reduced interest rates in the short term, but allows them to rise in future years if market conditions change, although the rates would be capped (at 8.25 percent for undergraduate loans).

A New York Times news article noted that many liberals were upset that some Democrats backed the measure, since it eliminated fixed-rate federally subsidized loans.

So, Johnson voted for a measure that helped student loan recipients in the short term -- although it took the government out of setting interest rates, creating the likelihood that the rates will rise in future years.

Our rating

Feingold said Johnson "is opposed to all government-assisted student loans."

Johnson has said the government never should have gotten involved in student loans, shouldn’t be involved in it and should look to gradually get out of it.

But one of his votes helped student borrowers in the short term, though that measure could lead to higher interest rates in future years, since the rates are tied to changes in the financial markets.

Feingold’s statement is accurate but needs clarification, our definition of Mostly True.