UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she is hopeful for a typical, in-person fall semester in 2021 at a virtual event on Thursday.
“Virtual learning is not a substitute for residential education,” said Blank. “There’s a good amount of research that says the type of interactions and discussions you have face-to-face are very different from those you have in Zoom squares.”
The university plans to continue with frequent testing and prevention efforts before opening back up in-person activities, Blank said. Currently, fully vaccinated individuals who provide proof of vaccination are exempt from required COVID-19 testing two weeks after their final dose.
“People have a choice – they can take a vaccine or do regular testing to ensure that we’re protecting our community,” Blank said.
Despite the mental health and financial hardships exacerbated by the pandemic, Blank highlighted UW’s academic performance as a whole — which she hopes will lead to continued success in future semesters.
“I’m not going to say that this has been an easy year for [our students], but our grade distribution hasn’t deteriorated, we haven’t had an increase in students dropping out, we haven’t had an increase in students dropping classes,” said Blank. “Our grade point average actually shifted up.”
“There are a number of institutions that are seeing increases in students who seem to not be keeping up with the work as well — we haven’t seen that very much at Madison. We’ve got a lot of supports in place, and we’re going to be watching closely in the fall.”
Blank also shared her thoughts on the student debt crisis in light of President Biden’s exploration of debt relief policies. However, in terms of universal student debt relief, Blank said she only supported debt relief in job-specific cases.
“Last year, among our graduating seniors, 57% of them graduated with zero debt. Of the remaining 40% [with debt], their debt is lower than average debt in the state of Wisconsin and below the state average — and the default rate on that debt is lower than 1%.”
According to the 2019-2020 Budget Report, the average debt load for Bachelor’s degree recipients who borrow is $27,138, lower than the state average of $29,650.
“The idea that people should not borrow for college is not the right idea,” Blank said. “[But] there are people who cannot afford [to borrow], who’s career interests and jobs keep them from being able to repay [loans].”
She said that those in public-service related jobs, including educators and those in social work, should be provided with debt relief.
“I do think some form of debt forgiveness is useful,” Blank said. “I think you want to link it to the jobs that people are in — I don’t think you want to do across-the-board debt forgiveness.”