Who Will Have the Guts to Pull Americans Out of the Wreckage of the Student Loan Crisis in 2020?

Student debt is creating a generation of indentured people. How will Democrats respond?

Photo Credit: AFL-CIO

Donald Trump and his ally Betsy DeVos are stopping at nothing in shredding our public educational system and further perpetuating the rampant economic and education-based inequality plaguing our increasingly Dickensian society. Their latest move in attacking students is the provision in the tax bill that would tax the tuition waivers of graduate students, which for many students would increase their taxes by 400% and effectively force countless people who are barely scraping by to drop out of grad school or keep them from entering in the first place.

Of course, the tax plan is just one piece in a multi-pronged Republican assault on higher education. Underlying it all is the student debt crisis, which now constitutes $1.4 trillion and growing that is collectively owed by—and is choking the economic life out of—entire generations of Americans. It’s imperative that whoever takes over from this nightmare in 2020 is the best possible candidate to advocate for the millions of Americans whose economic security, unlike their student loans, seems to be on permanent deferral.

Despite millennials being the most educated generation in U.S. history, the prospects for our future are dim. Unless we comprise the minority of people fortunate enough to be born wealthy, we face the choice of being shackled to student loan debt for decades or face even harsher job prospects without a college degree. Many of us still haven’t been able to find work that pays a living wage, let alone work that will help us get out from under our debt.

Meanwhile, customer service and food service jobs are swollen with workers who have college degrees and higher, which further hurts those without them. As people from wealthier backgrounds and older generations continue to write intentionally obtuse think pieces about how “entitled” and “lazy” millennials are, collective student loan debt has become more massive than total credit card debt.

“Almost 45% of recent college graduates put off buying a house because of their debt, and 55% delayed saving for retirement because of it,” writes Chris Bowyer for Forbes. “14% of recent graduates put off marriage on account of their debt, and 28% put off having children.”

Similarly, Daniel Austin, a law professor at Northeastern University, called the current situation “perverse and obscene." He told the International Business Times, “We are creating a generation of indentured people."

“It is mind-boggling that we would do this to a whole generation of young people,” Austin said. “I can’t understand any other modern society doing this.”

As millennials take center stage as a generation larger than the baby boomers, Democrats will not be able to afford taking anything other than a gutsy, full-throated approach to solving this mess. Let's examine how each of the following frontrunners for the presidency stack up on what will be a vital issue driving the next presidential race. While each contender on this list, except for Joe Biden (as he is not a current or recent member of Congress) are co-sponsors of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's 2014 Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, there are many differences between them and ways they may need to need to improve on their advocacy before 2020.

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was a sustained voice for access to higher education throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, advocating for free tuition for all public colleges and universities. Pointing out that the University of California system used to offer free tuition into the 180s, Sanders, who also grew up working-class in Brooklyn, writes as part of his six-point education plan:

“This is not a radical idea. Germany eliminated tuition because they believed that charging students $1,300 per year was discouraging Germans from going to college. Chile will do the same. Finland, Norway, Sweden and many other countries around the world also offer free college to all of their citizens. If other countries can take this action, so can the United States of America.”

Among the other points in Sanders’ six-point plan include slashing federal student loan interest rates to 2.37% (the 2006 rate) rather than allowing “profiteering on the backs of college students,” allowing Americans to refinance their loans at lower rates, and “more than tripl[ing]” the federal work study program. And in his new book aimed at teenagers, The Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution, student loan debt figures prominently as an issue. Sanders writes in the book, “The United States used to lead the world in the percentage of people who graduated from college ... We now rank fifteenth."

"Does anyone really not believe," he continues, "that this will have severe economic consequences for the future of our economy and our way of life?”

Critics, meanwhile, continue to question how Sanders would be able to pay for these plans. In response, Sanders proposes to finance his policies through a tax on Wall Street speculation, which, he points out, has been similarly done in Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, and China. Sanders' common lament—that if the rest of the industrialized world can be leaders on a range of social and economic issues, why must the United States continue to lag behind?—is a powerful reprimand to those who uncritically invest in American exceptionalism, and at the same time, it acts as a call to action for those who envision a brighter American future.

Of course, Congress would need a progressive majority to pass this type of sweeping reform. PolitiFact reports that Sanders’ tax on Wall Street speculation would only account for two-thirds

of the needed funding and that states would be responsible for the remaining third, leaving open the question of what would happen if states refused to pay their portion, as many did with the Affordable Care Act.

However, the recent legislative victory in New York to create a free pathway to public four-year colleges and universities for poor, working-class, and middle-class families has already begun having an impact on the lives of incoming college students in the state. This may be early proof that Sanders’ ideas can be successfully implemented at the national level.

Elizabeth Warren

The popular Massachusetts Senator has built her image as a hard-hitting advocate of the 99%. Writing about her sponsorship of the Bank on Students Act, Warren argues that it's unfair that student loans have higher interest rates than do home mortgages, businesses, and local governments, which she says results in big profits for the government to the tune of billions.

In contrast, Warren’s plan would allow borrowers to refinance their federal loans at rates of 3.86% for undergraduate loans and “a little higher” for graduate and parent loans, matching the rates established by Congress for borrowers in the 2013-2014 school year. Warren argues that closing tax loopholes for millionaires will help offset the cost of refinancing and will, according to the Congressional Budget Office, reduce the federal deficit by approximately $14 billion.

Warren has also been a prominent Hill critic of DeVos, grilling her on the subject of student loans during DeVos’ confirmation testimony in January, pointing out DeVos' lack of experience in the field of education, and later concluding, "If Betsy DeVos can't commit to using the Department of Education's many tools and resources to protect students from fraud, I don't see how she can be the Secretary of Education."

Warren, as a close Sanders ally, will likely draw support from the same base of progressive Democrats and independents in any potential presidential run. But as a former tenured Harvard law professor, she will need to make inroads, especially at the national level, in demonstrating that she truly understands the daily turmoil faced by poor and working-class Americans struggling to pay off student debt. Given her own working-class background, this may not prove so difficult.

Kamala Harris

A rising star in the Democratic Party and former Attorney General of California, Sen. Kamala Harris endorses a number of progressive positions related to the student loan crisis, including increasing Pell Grant awards, supporting former President Obama’s plan for free tuition at community colleges, and advancing student loan debt refinancing options. She is also on the record as an advocate for protecting undocumented California students’ access to federal grants and in-state tuition, a principled stance that flies in the face of Trump's recent dehumanizing crackdown on DACA recipients.

In addition, Harris has prioritized going after predatory for-profit colleges. In 2013 she sued Corinthian Colleges for their predatory practices that she said “left hundreds of thousands of students in financial ruin.” Corinthian ultimately agreed to close or sell their 100-plus campuses nationwide.

In 2015 Harris sent a letter to the Department of Education urging the federal government to forgive the loans of students defrauded by Corinthian. And in 2016, she issued a consumer alert identifying what college students need to know in order to avoid predatory student loan company practices, an important move in signalling which groups she seeks to hold herself accountable to.

Like Sanders and Warren, Harris has been questioned about how she would pay for tuition-free community college, to which her campaign responded that the funds would come from closing corporate tax loopholes, ending oil company subsidies, and reducing the United States’ production of nuclear weapons. Again, as these ambitious plans would most certainly require a progressive majority in 2018, much of the success of these goals hinges on Democrats' ability to take back Congress in the coming year. Progressives have also taken issue with Harris’ stances on a number of issues connected to the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs, which she will need to respond to if she throws her hat in the ring come 2020.

Cory Booker

The Senator from New Jersey’s record on the student debt crisis is less developed than most of the other contenders on this list; however, his policies on K-12 education arguably have an impact on students’ later ability to access higher education.

Booker is a board member of Democrats for Education Reform and member of the larger “education reform” movement, which includes supporters like Obama but which is controversial among progressives. He is in favor of a form of school vouchers in some low-income communities and has championed the efforts of Gov. Chris Christie to expand charter schools and establish merit-based pay for teachers.

These stances have been eyebrow-raising for many. Booker's progressive critics argue that vouchers and charter schools take away funding and attention from public schools that desperately need it, while merit-based pay punishes teachers working at underfunded districts, among other concerns.

During the 2012 Democratic National Committee convention, Booker also spoke at an event hosted by Michelle Rhee, a former D.C. schools chancellor, “who teachers[‘] unions see as working to privatize public education and undermine collective bargaining,” according to a 2013 piece in The Atlantic. This will no doubt come back to haunt him, or Booker will at least have to answer for it should he choose to run in 2020.

However, on the subject of the student debt crisis, Booker has been the key sponsor of the Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act. This legislation would streamline the online FAFSA (Federal Application For Student Aid) process by eliminating questions deemed to be unnecessary and partnering with the IRS to access financial information the IRS already has rather than asking families to input the numbers. But given how many of his would-be Democratic competitors have taken meatier stances and released grander plans, Booker will need to catch his campaign up to speed if he hopes to remain viable.

Joe Biden

Former Vice President and Delaware Senator Joe Biden is a favored 2020 contender for those who wish he had entered the 2016 race, and his public comments about how close he came to running before the death of his son, Beau, are a source of speculation about what his plans may be in the next election cycle. However, Biden's reputation as a solid Clinton-wing Democrat—albeit a share-from-the-heart, working-class one—may be too lackluster for the progressive Democratic base and left-leaning independents. Most progressives, and certainly the large number of millennials who favored Sanders in the Democratic primary, believe that a Sanders-wing contender will be mandatory for victory over Trump in 2020, which is a big reason why progressive candidates continue to dominate the 2020 conversation.

And when it comes to the student loan crisis, things start to look even less promising for Biden. According to a report by the International Business Times, Biden was a key proponent of the 2005 legislation passed under George W. Bush that made discharging student loan debt through bankruptcy essentially impossible. (Elizabeth Warren, during her time as a professor, even wrote a paper about Biden’s key role in pushing for this legislation.) According to the IBT report, “Biden’s efforts in 2005 were no anomaly … the Delaware lawmaker has played a consistent and pivotal role in the financial industry’s four-decade campaign to make it harder for students to shield themselves and their families from creditors.”

As a result of these efforts benefitting lenders, the lenders feel freer to hand out more loans without fear of courts allowing customers to erase their debts. This in turn helped debt rates skyrocket since the ‘70s. In addition, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Biden has received approximately $1.9 million in campaign contributions from the financial services industry—something he will need to answer for in any potential primary debate.

To his credit, Biden has spoken in recent years about how unaffordable college has become for students and the importance of lowering student debt. But in a 2008 presidential debate against then-candidate Obama, Biden defended his 2005 vote and hasn’t said much since, other than his office telling the International Business Times that Biden “support[s] studying the issue.” Voters in 2020 will require an authentic commitment to taking on the student loan companies and a game plan for fixing the crisis, so if Biden does plan to run, he will need to publicly disavow his 2005 advocacy and make amends to change course.

Looking Forward

Out of these options, Sanders, Warren, and Harris have the most extensive records on advocating for Americans negatively impacted by the student loan crisis. What they also share, however, is a need to put out more policy details on how they will be able to implement their ambitious plans. Especially if the makeup of Congress isn’t as progressive as they would like it to be by 2020, each potential contender will need to have a backup plan (or several) for how to create meaningful change.

The goods news is that there’s still ample time for each of these current and former politicians to step up to the plate and offer substantive ideas for solutions to the problems that so many millions of Americans are facing. For those of us who are a part of this “generation of indentured people,” the relief can’t come soon enough.

Shannon Weber is a New England-based writer, researcher and editor whose work has appeared venues from Teen Vogue and Patheos to international sexuality studies journals. She is a former professor of women's and gender studies and has taught at Tufts University, Brandeis University, Northeastern University, UC Santa Barbara, and Wellesley College. 

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