The federal government must do more to help students with the cost of college, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold told UW-Madison students Friday.

Feingold sought to emphasize the contrast with his opponent, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who has said the federal government should "remove itself from the funding mechanisms of college education."

Feingold attended a roundtable discussion with college students Friday at Ian's Pizza in downtown Madison. The Middleton Democrat and former three-term senator said he favors providing federal funds to states for colleges and universities for the purpose of reducing student debt.

"There should be a dramatic federal initiative to try to seek the goal of eliminating student debt," Feingold said.

The federal government already plays a huge role in helping students afford college. It issues more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds each year to more than 13 million students.

Feingold says the federal government should do more. He said he favors a plan in which federal grants would go to states willing to match those dollars, thus creating an incentive for states not to cut higher-education funding.

It's similar to a $350 billion plan offered by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The Clinton plan would give $175 billion in federal grants to states that guarantee students would not have to borrow to cover tuition at four-year public colleges and universities, according to a New York Times report. States that accept the grants would have to increase spending on higher education while also working to slow the growth of tuition.

Students told Feingold on Friday about their anxiety of graduating with large amounts of debt. One of them was UW-Madison student Caroline Russell, who said she expects to graduate in May with about $45,000 in debt.

Russell told Feingold her parents couldn't afford to help her much with the cost of college. She said she has tried to live frugally, in part by attending a technical college for her first two years. Still, Russell said her debt will have a big impact on her life after college.

"I'm definitely feeling very, very trapped," Russell said. 

Feingold suggested he better understands how students and families are grappling with college costs than his opponent.

"I can understand very well how challenging it is to afford paying for college education for a kid," Feingold said. "That is something that I can relate to.

"I'm not sure he (Johnson) can relate to it."

A Johnson spokesman had no immediate response.