A collage of the presidential candidates

7 Presidential Candidates and Their Plans for Fixing Student Loan Debt

Spoiler Alert: Donny Trumpet’s thinking wall.

By Ali Breland, University of Texas at Austin


Jeff gets into the reputed public school in his state. Jeff gets into even more reputed schools outside of his state.

Then Jeff goes and gets into even more costly private schools, but there Jeff’s parents draw the line: they’re not wealthy enough to front tuition for these expensive out-of-state and private schools.[1] Unfortunately (fortunately), they’re not poor enough to qualify for Pell Grants or other financial assistance either.

Jeff opts for the reputed in-state public school and pays the tuition himself. He works part-time during the year and full-time in the summer, just like his parents.[2] But even though that’s how they paid off their debt when they were in college, it’s not the summer of ’87 anymore, and Jeff’s part-time wage of a cool $8.25/hour hardly makes a dent in the exploding cost of tuition, rising at almost double the rate of inflation every year.[3] When Jeff graduates, he’s going to have a lot of student loan debt, and he’s going to spend a long time paying it off.

Jeff isn’t real, but his plight is not only real, it’s increasingly common. Student debt has mushroomed from a low-priority problem, ameliorated by part-time college jobs and a steady post-collegiate salary, to a crushing problem that could handicap the economic opportunity of our generation.[4]

In fact, student debt might even be worse than analysts and commentators had thought. Staggering non-repayment rates and defaulted loans plague students, especially the most economically disadvantaged, who are supposed to be the ones being saved from this system by Pell Grants.

Debt is at record levels and will take record amounts of time to pay off, which will cost this generation larger portions of their income than ever before, as well as increase the likelihood that our potential wealth loss will affect future generations.

There is perhaps as much research on student debt as there is student debt.

Just kidding, there’s way more student debt: $1.2 trillion distributed amongst 40 million Americans, compared to the 24.5 million search results that come up when you Google “student debt.”

So what’s causing these staggering levels of student debt and hyper-inflated tuition?

No one knows with certainty why costs have increased so much, least of all this writer,[5] but researchers have some ideas. Citing higher education budget cuts is a popular explanation for some educators and administrators. According to them, education budgets have either been slashed or haven’t kept pace with inflation.

For conservatives, it’s in vogue to blame personal responsibility, the overabundance of Pell-grants that might be mitigating costs for poorer students while driving up costs for everyone else, or just government intervention at large.

Others fault a more empirically backed cause: the proliferation of university administration, whose staffing expansions have exceeded increases in student enrollment.

Fear not though, because the student debt problem (some say crisis, but that seems tacky in light of what Syrians and Greeks[6] are dealing with) has become a major talking point for the 2016 elections. It helps that 18 – 34 year olds,[7] the primary group affected by student debt, also happen to make up a quarter of all eligible voters and have been a pivotal demographic in the last two presidential elections. This makes the issue of student debt very important to politicians, and both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have all offered unique policy solutions to fixing the student debt mess.

This is the part of the piece where I use the skills from my real job to break down each candidate’s position. If you’re fan of Lincoln Chaffee, look away.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is the Tom Brady of politics: tall and handsome with an incredible arm. When you’re not hypnotized by her sparkling eyes and incredible scruff, her decently comprehensive policy platform for mitigating student debt might still get you off. If elected, Clinton plans on putting $350 million toward reducing student debt and making college more affordable. The largest chunk of this would be budgeted for enticing states into increasing their investments in higher education.

She would also allocate money to provide grants for states that agree to offer free tuition at two-year community colleges, as well as ones that offer the opportunity to attend a four-year college without incurring loans. Overall though, Clinton takes a relatively moderate tack compared to her fellow Democratic contenders [8] and her more conservative counterparts.

Bernie Sanders

Despite Bernie Sanders’ unkempt appearance and resemblance to your racist Uncle Craig, he is indeed a contender for the 2016 Democratic bid. Even though he isn’t traditionally sexy, he identifies as a socialist, which is so taboo in American politics that it borders on the erotic.

His positions on the student loan problem are expectedly radical.[9] Despite his racist Uncle Craig aesthetic, a long time ago he convinced the kind people of Vermont to elect him to Senate , and this year he helped bring a bill to Congress that would eliminate tuition at public colleges. If that happened, UT Austin’s student government wouldn’t have to fight tuition increases and could finally get back to debating the ply of toilet paper in campus bathrooms.[10]

Sanders’ proposed bill would cover two-thirds of the $70 billion annual tuition cost (for perspective, that’s roughly 1 trillion pesos). But if you work in private equity or at a hedge fund, this is bad news: Sanders proposes high taxes on your income bracket to bankroll this subsidy. Some think this is ludicrous, given how much intrinsic value private equity and hedge funds contribute to society and the economy and the good of mankind.

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina is doing better in the polls than she did as HP’s CEO, where she “destroyed half the wealth of her investors,” and made a series of failed mergers and acquisitions that earned her a VIP spot on the Worst CEO’s of All Time list. Despite being really bad at business, she wants to make the college market place operate more like a business. Go figure.

Fiorina wants the government to have a limited role in the loan process and hope that the free market makes loan-giving more competitive, thereby driving down prices. Mixing for-profit interests and higher education is dangerous ground, but it has potential benefits, especially because many argue that government intervention and Pell Grants have contributed to tuition inflation. Reducing the messy interaction between government and markets could fix this, but it could also make it worse.

Ben Carson

As a writer, to maintain credibility you have to show restraint and mitigate personal biases. It’s impossible to do that here and maintain truthfulness: Carson’s plan is dumb.

He proposes that students take time off and work for several years to more easily afford college, which is extremely damaging for income inequality. The middle class and poorer students, who are likelier to have to take those jobs, delay going to school, delay graduating and delay reaping the benefits of higher income jobs that require college educations. It shaves off valuable years of higher-earning years and contributes to the growing wealth gap in America.

Decades ago this may have been feasible, but the current minimum wage has a historically low purchasing power.

If you worked a fulltime job at minimum wage for two years, you’d earn about $30,000 before taxes, assuming your parents covered your other expenses. That covers three years’ worth of tuition, assuming you’re paying for an average in-state college. If you’re in a state with a bad public college, then you’re out of luck.

Average out-of-state tuition is $22,000 a year, and $30,000 for a private school, numbers which of course don’t include books, board or living expenses. That’s a lot of money to save up when the only jobs you can work are ones that don’t require a college education (remember: you’re working this job so you won’t have to work this job). In an interview, Carson compared college tuition to buying a home:

“How did we get into a big problem [with student debt]? Somehow, people forgot that you don’t buy a house that costs more the 2 ½ times your annual salary…People have to use their brains.”

Large, expensive homes are a luxury. Quality education is not.

Jeb Bush

To his credit, Bush seems to have a position that isn’t predicated on maintaining ideological appearances—he advocates for students taking less time to graduate, thereby avoiding extra tuition fees and incentivizing colleges to drive down costs. While well meaning and relatively uncontroversial, his plan is slightly problematic.

Students often take longer to graduate when they’re working jobs to pay for their education. College students do a lot of dumb things, but messing around and taking extra semesters when they’re paying their way through school isn’t one of them. At best, Bush’s plan could help increase responsibility and ease debt loads for students. At worse, status quo is maintained. His plan is simple, middle of the road and boring, just like Jeb.

Donald Trump

If Hillary Clinton is Tom Brady, then Donald Trump is J.J. Watt. All he does is talk shit, obliterate people and win. Even though a lot of people don’t like him, he’s unstoppable. His campaign has been pronounced dead countless times after glaring political blunders, but when the polls come out, he tops them every time.

Unfortunately, Donnie Trumpet doesn’t have a hilarious and arrogant position on student loans. He thinks it’s bad that the government can profit on student loans, which is closer to a liberal position than a conservative one, but he’s always been more of a winner than an ism anyway.

Marco Rubio

Better known as the Prince of Florida, Rubio is the Republican party’s wet dream: a Latino Republican who’s also relatively tough on immigration. Now that Jeb Bush is taking a beating in the polls and Scott Walker’s out of the race, Rubio might be the best hope for the Republicans.

Rubio also has a lot of experience with student debt. When he was sworn in as the Prince of Florida Senator of Florida in 2011, he had over $100,000 in loans left to pay (1.6 million pesos). His experience with crushing debt makes him more empathetic to college students than to tiny children playing football, and when was serving as prince senator, he introduced legislation that made payments more accurately reflect payers’ income, opted for more free market policies on loan options (à la Fiorina) and more transparency on the stats of educational institutions.

There are limits to what the candidates can do. Federal policy can only accomplish so much without addressing the more systemic causes of student debt. It can help ease the burden on students and society, but policy makers and colleges have to slow the tuition increases. Cutting costs and increasing fiscal efficiency in higher education is necessary, but how that will be done—that’s the $1.2. trillion question.

[1] This is going to be one of those fancy (read: pretentious) pieces where the author uses footnotes

[2] Hope I don’t abuse the footnotes.

[3] Three footnotes in and I’m totally abusing the use of footnotes. Sorry, Mark (he’s the editor).

[4] I’m abusing this ish like Leonard Fournette abuses SEC defenses.

[5] Don’t ask young, aspiring writers questions more difficult than, “What bar near here has the cheapest happy hour?”

[6] The country, not the crisis Texas Pi Phi was going through on Yik-Yak.

[7] You!

[8] A group that Lincoln Chaffee is not included in because no one cares about him.

[9] You can kill me for writing this sentence. If you do, just make sure you burn me at the stake when you do it *fire emoji* *fire emoji* *fire emoji*

[10] It’s really shitty that they haven’t been able to talk about this for so long.

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