While previous presidential debates have raised higher-education issues, this week’s two nights of Democratic debates were the first time that student debt was squarely addressed by the moderators and candidates alike. Voters were given a choice of presidential student loan reform plans, and that is good news for those who have waited for the issue to capture the attention of political leaders nationwide.
The lively discussions marked a major turning point for the grassroots movement to end rising college costs and out-of-control student debt.
Student debt is a growing burden that strikes directly at the core of traditional voter priorities about the economy. Research by experts, including the Federal Reserve, has documented student loan debt’s wide-ranging implications, from hampering the housing market to decimating retirement savings, and even exacerbating inequality in higher education.
During a portion of the first night’s debate, CNN moderator Dana Bash fired a series of questions that covered a wide set of policies, including student debt cancellation and free college. It forced several of the 2020 candidates to speak on the record related to their plans to address student loan debt.
For consumer rights champions Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the unprecedented debate question opened the door for the candidates to place their bold student loan forgiveness and free college proposals in the spotlight.
Others on stage, like Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke were hesitant to support such comprehensive solutions. However, they used their time to address the many critical issues impacting students and student loan borrowers today. Tackling predatory for-profit colleges, increasing affordability for trade and worker training programs, and refinancing student loans were all passionate topics of discussion.
Even political newcomer Marianne Williamson used the opportunity for a breakout moment, saying that “the best thing you could do to stimulate the US economy is to get rid of this debt.” Turning towards other candidates, she continued, “I almost wonder why you’re Democrats. You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do.”
Bash’s question is more poignant than ever. More than 45 million Americans are currently crushed by an extraordinary $1.6 trillion in student debt. Even more troubling, the data is clear that student debt disproportionately harms women, students of color, and even disabled veterans.
Early in the second night’s discussion, former vice president Joe Biden proposed increasing financial aid for lower-income students and former offenders as part of his plan for criminal justice reform. Federal grants are known to prevent unnecessary student debt and help expand educational opportunities for vulnerable students.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard also supported plans to reduce student loan debt across the country, saying it is “crushing” an entire generation. Sadly, she also doubled down on her objections to progressive proposals that extend free tuition to undocumented students.
While advocates deep in the trenches of education reform have made significant victories, many everyday Americans remain unaware that efforts to address the student debt problem are growing. Many debate viewers learned for the first time that much of the progress has come from legislators who were on the debate stage.
There already exists a slew of bills supported by Senators Warren and Sanders, as well as Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, which aim to refinance student loans, forgive student debt for public service workers, and much more.
In recent months, Warren introduced the “Student Loan Debt Relief Act,” Sanders introduced the “College for All Act,” and Gillibrand introduced the “What You Can Do For You Country Act,” among other bills in both houses of Congress.
Consumer advocates are encouraged by the recent focus on the topic. For nearly a decade, small, grassroots organizations have echoed the voices of Americans who were suffering due to their student debt. Until now, their economic distress has been largely ignored.
While these bills remain in Congress, the Democratic presidential proposals are certainly a shift in the nationwide discussion about tuition costs, student loan debt, and how American workers can remain competitive in the 21st-century economy.
It is fair to say that comprehensive student debt reform has officially gone mainstream. What these policies look like in reality remains to be seen. However, the voices of students and borrowers are cutting through the noise, and the issue seems to be shaping the proposed Democratic presidential platforms in a way that offers hope that much-needed relief is possible in the near future.