Student Debt & The 2016 Election

Three Democratic presidential candidates have released plans to tackle America's huge student debt and college affordability problems, already making it more of a key issue than in past elections. Today, 40 million Americans have outstanding student loan debts, with an average balance of $29,000, so it's an issue on a lot of people's minds. Student debt activists and young people either still in college or trying to pay off crippling loans want to see student debt play a major role in the 2016 election, and the plans of Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders are a good start. But they could all go much further.

Natalia Abrams, executive director of the nonprofit Student Debt Crisis, tells Bustle that college affordability should play a crucial role in the election because it’s more than just a problem for millennials — it's a multi-generational issue. She says, "It affects students, their parents, and sometimes their grandparents," as family members often take out loans of their own to help students pay tuition.

The Democrats' proposals all have the same objective: making it possible to go to college debt-free. Clinton's plan, which she titled "The New College Compact," aims to make community college free (following Obama's example) and increase state and federal funding for universities to lower tuition costs. Sanders' proposed College For All Act would make attending public universities completely free. O'Malley's plan encourages states to freeze tuition rates, as he did as the Governor of Maryland.

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Although no Republican candidates have released a comprehensive student debt or college affordability plan, a few have at least acknowledged the problem, proving that the issue is gaining recognition. In July, Donald Trump criticized the federal government's student loan system for profiting from students' debt. According to USA Today, the government made $66 billion from student loans between 2007 and 2012. "That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off," Trump told The Hill. During the GOP debate on August 6, Marco Rubio brought up his personal student debt in a comment about Clinton lecturing Republicans on the problems low- and middle-class Americans face. He said: "How is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago."

American student loan debt has increased 84 percent since 2008, and has reached a cumulative all-time high of $1.2 trillion. It's pretty hard to even wrap your head around that much money, and many have said that student debt is the biggest current threat to the U.S. economy. "It's a little worrisome because lots of people are coming out with student loans and debt that maybe they're not going to be able to pay, and if they can't or choose not to repay it, then we could be in another situation where somebody has to pay it," said Experian vice president of analytics Michele Raneri in a video about the company's student loan study. She's referencing the mortgage crisis that triggered the 2008 recession.

Because the nation's student debt is increasing every year, activists want to see action taken as soon as possible. Ethan Senack, higher education advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), tells Bustle, "This is a crucial time. It’s incredibly important for our next president to make a commitment to college affordability."

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One of the main issues college affordability advocates want to see addressed in the election is the root cause of risings college costs. Antoinette Flores, a post-secondary education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, tells Bustle: "We’d like to see decreasing state investment be addressed as really the driver of increasing tuition. We’ve already seen that in a number of plans — plans by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley — incentivizing states to invest more in public colleges."

Specifically, Clinton's New College Compact would give federal grants to states that ramp up investment in higher education, Sanders' requires states to pay for 33 percent of all college costs, and O'Malley's vaguely encourages states to invest in universities. States' past disinvestment in higher education is already being talked about, but Flores wants the conversation to continue.

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On top of being a nationwide economic problem, student debt is a very personal issue for the 40 million Americans with outstanding loans, and it will help determine who many young people vote for in 2016. Jess Dankenbring, a University of Richmond student graduating in 2017, tells Bustle that college affordability is one of her biggest concerns when deciding who to vote for: "The college affordability issue is huge for me, because in order to pursue the career I want, I've had to put myself about $30,000 in debt. And I'm only halfway through college."

All three candidates' plans focus much more on making it possible to attend college debt-free than on helping people who already have debt. Clinton, Sanders, and O'Malley's plans would all allow those in debt to refinance their existing loans to lower their monthly payments, and each add their own spin on the situation. Sanders called for cutting student loan interest rates in half, but only for new students, not those already in debt. O'Malley's plan would cap monthly payments so that former students pay based on their income. Clinton's proposal would do both those things. Abrams, the director of Student Debt Crisis, tells Bustle: "They all don’t go far enough, but we’d like to see more of what Hillary is talking about."

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Abrams wants to see a cancellation of some of the existing student debt, or a limit on interest accumulation to 30 percent, or less of a borrower's overall debt. "They’re the first injured party, and we need to take care of them first before we move onto the next generation of students," she says of Americans already in debt.

Because the candidates' current plans barely address existing debt, some young people who already have loans feel alienated from the discussion. "The president's college affordability plan is really a non-issue for me because I'm about to graduate college," says Jason Jimmerson, a Colorado State University student graduating in 2016. "[Clinton's] plan has nothing to do with people who are currently struggling with college debt, so as a voter, her plan doesn't apply to me."

While student debt activists don't think any of the existing plans are perfect, they're at least spurring the conversation about possible solutions to the high price for a college education — a conversation that hopefully just began. "It’s been very exciting so far," Senack, of the U.S. PIRG, says. "I think this is the most that student debt has really been talked about as a serious issue in a presidential election, and we’re really excited to see how the debate moves forward."