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MC’s Perspective: Trump, Clinton and the Student Debt Crisis

College affordability has become a major issue in our lives and in the current presidential election. Americans currently hold $1.3 trillion in student loans, and millennials are often characterized as a generation burdened with a mountain of debt.

One reason for this growth is, obviously, because many more people have been attending college. When the economy entered into a recession in 2008, many people couldn’t get jobs, so they went back to school. About 29 million people held student debt at the time, but by 2015 that number increased to 40 million people.

At the same time, the cost of college went up, while state funding for higher education went down. Despite this rise, experts say the crisis is overblown, the student debt is smaller than the mortgage debt, which is at 8 trillion. Still, this crisis has been addressed by both candidates.

Donald Trump has proposed an income-based cap on student loan payments and ambitious student loan forgiveness program. Called for a single student loan repayment plan capped at 12.5% of a borrower’s’ income and suggested borrowers would see their student debt forgiven after 15 years of making full payments, yet no estimates or figures were given on how this would be paid for.

Hillary Clinton has promised to invest $500 billion to eliminate tuition for millions of students at public colleges, and to ultimately eliminate tuition at in-state public colleges for families with annual incomes up to $125,000 or less, and free community college. The federal government would provide tuition grants to states that agree to put up some matching money. However, this only applies to public university tuition, which excludes room and board, and does not pertain at all to private colleges.

Elizabeth O’Connor, a senior government major, reflects on these issues and policies.

“I understand why for so many free college is an ideal and desirable thing. I get why. But I don’t get how. Secretary Clinton’s plan is a guarantee in raising taxes, and as someone who will actually start paying real taxes very soon, I would not want that. I also don’t believe in government handouts that will ultimately hurt us, which her plan will,” O’Connor said.

She hypothesizes that if everyone goes to a two year school for affordability reasons, then everyone will be attending public institutions for the Bachelor’s degrees, and no one will stand out on the market.

“It will make attending a postgraduate institution or finding a job within six months of graduation near impossible. There is already such an influx of graduates who cannot find jobs in their fields, why are we willing to add to that problem when you’re also going to be paying more for taxes to get that free education? Because remember, nothing is ever free,” O’Connor said.

However, O’Connor does not find Trump’s approach appealing at all either, because in her eyes he is offering no solid plan.

“There are already debt forgiveness plans, like working for the federal government for a certain number of years. I think this type of program does incentivize not only maintaining a job to pay the loan off for the 15 years and doesn’t give the government this giant lump sum at the end of the day, but it also puts money into the economy continuously which can help close the debt gap,” she said.

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Graph from the U.S. Department of Education.

O’Connor herself is currently applying to law schools that offer scholarships, and is also planning on taking out loans in order to attend. She does intend, however, to work for the government so that her loans will one day be forgiven, but still worries for the millions of people that forgiveness programs do not encompass.

“I wish he [Trump] would give a more solid plan on how they will pay off everyone’s loans, not just federal employees, since that opens up the market to a whole new level,” she said.

Between her scholarships, grants, and the help of her parents, O’Connor will have no debt from her undergraduate education. She argues that college–community, public, or private–should never be free.

“I believe that we have actually overvalued college in our society. I believe that there should be a greater emphasis on attending a two year institution and then transferring to a bachelor granting institution after. No, that is not the route I went down, but it is something that economically makes sense. […] I wish we would promote gap year programs or have more work study options to ultimately make college cheaper,” she said.

O’Connor mentions a lot of what experts have suggested when it comes to resolving the debt crises: increasing community college attendance as well as national awareness of college spending when it comes to four year colleges and universities.

Kaitlyn Clarke, a junior international studies major, also believes that this collective anxiety regarding student debt is valid.

“I split my tuition bills with my parents, but I think many students experience this stress, unless they are more privileged, but I don’t think that’s the case for most people here, nor do I think that’s the case for most people in America, sadly,” she said.

Clarke sides more with Clinton’s plan, supporting this with the fact that debt drastically affects a person’s life after they graduate.

“Students need their education in order to become successful in our society and in any society, and I think a lot of students experience debt, which puts up obstacles in their future. This doesn’t help with success rates and further diminishes their ability to move on with their lives,” she said.

What Clarke touches on here is true: according to a poll ran by TIME, students who graduate with excessive debt are more likely to say that it caused delays in major life events: buying a home, getting married, having children, etc. They are also more likely to say that their debt influenced their employment plans: they work outside of their field, work more than they desire, or work more than one job.

Justin Peralta, a junior economics major, takes a look at the complexity of this issue and what resolving it really entails.

“The complication when talking about the college debt crisis in the short-term boils down to who will foot the bill. Many different narratives have been concocted to explain the mess we’re in today. The simplest explanation is probably this: the increased demand for a college diploma has applied pressure for colleges to differentiate themselves,” he said.

Peralta does not see hope in either of the candidates’ approaches, and believes that this issue is going to get worse before it gets better. While colleges have always competed in the classroom, Peralta explains that they have also invested heavily in upgrading facilities, decor, and other functions that are inessential to the education itself. Peralta refers to this as an “educational arms race.”

“Any feasible solution must address the issue beyond the understably popular rhetoric of making college free. Generally speaking the reason millennials are reasonably upset by the rising costs of college tuition has more to do with gradual disappearance of the American Dream. The worth of a degree is diminished by the same social values that incentivize us to attend college, because as more people in the economy have the same qualifications the monetary value of the person is diminished. We need politicians to focus on lowering the barriers to entry of higher education for those financially most at need, while simultaneously providing the opportunities for careers instead of just ‘jobs’.”

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