Watching all those happy Badgers in caps and gowns snapping selfies around Madison last weekend, you'd never guess they were buried under a debt load that now amounts to a heaping $1.2 trillion.
Debt cast such a dark shadow over commencement ceremonies this year, it's hard to fathom what a different world today's college graduates are entering from the one we lived in not so long ago.
"It used to be you could work at my father's restaurant over the summer and earn enough to pay for room, board, books and tuition, and still have something left over for beer," says Nino Amato, a former member of the UW Board of Regents, whose family ran Amato's restaurant on Park Street for many years.
In 2012, 71% of college seniors carried an average student loan debt of $29,400.
Ann DeGarmo graduated from UW-Madison last weekend with $50,000 in debt. DeGarmo attended a town hall meeting on the eve of her graduation, hosted by One Wisconsin Now, to discuss the student debt crisis. She cried as she described her fear that she will never get out from under her loans.
Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, has made the student-debt crisis a personal crusade. (Ross wrote a piece for The Progressive about finally paying off his own college loans when he turned 40.)
Part of his mission, he says, is empowering people who feel ashamed that they got into debt because they went to college.
"We do these town halls, and inevitably someone talks about debt and starts crying. They feel they did something wrong because their parents went to college and they didn't have debt," Ross says.
But the days when you could finance your education with summer restaurant work are long gone, he points out.
"How can we have a middle class if the number-two driver of consumer debt is getting an education to be in that middle class?" Ross asks.
The good news is that student debt is getting more and more attention. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren, and state Dems including Sen. Dave Hansen and Rep. Cory Mason, have all authored bills to allow students to refinance their loans at low interest rates, just like homeowners refinance their mortgages.
Warren says the goal is to get current graduates back on a level playing field with their luckier predecessors.
As Ross puts it, "If big banks can borrow from the federal government at interest rates as low as 1%, why shouldn't students and borrowers be able to lower their interest rates?"
Even Scott Walker recognizes that paying for college is a major issue. When he announced his reelection bid for governor, he made a point of highlighting his plan to freeze tuition.
But Walker and other Republicans steadfastly refuse to address the issue of student debt head-on. All 54 Democrats in the state Legislature cosponsored the bills to allow refinancing and ease the debt burden on Wisconsin college students. But not one Republican was willing to take the side of student borrowers.
That show of obstinance may turn out to be a big political mistake.
In national polls, more than half of Millennials rank student debt as a top issue of concern.
"In Wisconsin we have at least 800,000 people who have student loan debt," Ross points out. "My guess is, since they get a reminder every month, this is something in the forefront of their heads."
Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke put debt refinancing in her jobs plan and has been talking about the issue around the state.
"Allowing graduates to refinance their student debt just makes common sense and is one of the first things I'll propose doing as governor," says Burke, who points out that having more college degree holders is good for Wisconsin.
"The burden of student loan debt has a real impact on our economy," she adds, "forcing degree holders to put off buying a house or starting a new business because of the impact their monthly loan repayments have on their budgets."
Newspaper editorial boards from Green Bay to Appleton to Eau Claire to Madison have endorsed the idea of allowing students to refinance their debt.
"My goal is to make the 800,000 student loan borrowers in Wisconsin the most powerful voting bloc in the state," Ross says.
Nationally, the group Higher Ed, Not Debt has a similar aim. It's not pie in the sky.
Think of the voting power behind protecting Social Security (65 million recipients) and Medicare (47 million). Those numbers made these pillars of the New Deal the "third rail" in American politics.
Now think of the 40 million student loan debtors, whose ranks are only growing. Together, they could be the next most significant force in politics. And that could make for big change.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.