2016 Breakdown: The Candidates on Student Loan Debt


Kelsey Knorp
National Beat Reporter

It’s fall 2015, and political polarization has run rampant in the name of the presidential primaries, but it remains to be seen which hopeful speaks strongest to students.

Republican front runner Donald Trump condenses his political stances into just three categories: tax reform, second amendment rights and immigration reform, a selection that should rightfully insult Republicans seeking something other than a “one conservative fits all” solution.

The opposite camp we’re faced with is the self-proclaimed “democratic socialism” of Senator Bernie Sanders. Amidst the careful choice of words that has in recent decades comprised American politics, this year voters are faced with oft-unbridled radicalism on either side that threatens to upset the norm one way or another. Natural Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton can’t seem to shake the shadow of her haunted email server; Gov. Jeb Bush seems inescapably bogged down by the legacies of his father and brother. Where political experience once represented strength, anti-establishment attitudes now infiltrate, unimpressed by such choices as Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to bow out of the race in favor of a “non-Trump” alternative.

But where does this grandstanding leave the millions of college students nationwide who are buried in a $1.2 trillion mountain of student loan debt? The answer to that question requires closer scrutiny of this rat race for media love.

The GOP Breakdown

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has publicly criticized federal profit from student loans, a scheme he has called one of the “only profit centers” in government. Though the critique is warranted—federal loan programs yielded a $41.3 billion profit in 2013—he has not yet put forth a concrete solution, an approach that so far seems to be a common theme for the pale-haired Apprentice host’s campaign.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll places neurosurgeon and fellow out-of-left-fielder Ben Carson just one percent behind Trump in conservative preference. He proposes an altogether circumvention of loans and instead seeks to remove the stigma associated with working before attending college. “Somehow, people forgot that you don’t buy a house that costs more than two-and-a-half times your annual salary,” he said in a 2014 interview.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has flourished in recent polls as conservatives stake their claims in the latest voice of the American anti-establishment. In August, she told the Des Moines Register that the feds are to blame for driving up college costs with expensive accreditation programs and restriction of for-profit alternatives. Furthermore, she claims the federal nationalization of the loan industry has permitted the government to drive interest rates on loans up to unfair levels. Her formal education policy will likely take shape around concerns such as these.

Florida senator Marco Rubio, whose claims to $150,000 in repaid loan debt may help him resonate most with students nationwide, has clawed his way up to a tie with Fiorina at 11 percent conservative support. And in the true fashion of, well, the only conservative politician currently surviving the polls, he’s presented some specifics to counter the black hole of loans that countless students face.

In July, he likened U.S. higher education to a cartel with a few schools monopolizing accreditation power and invoked “free market forces” as its saving grace and the basis for his proposed plan for reform. According to Business Insider, this plan boils down to five key points, the first being an overhaul of the current accreditation system within the first 100 days of presidency, accompanied by an expansion of apprenticeship and vocational programs nationwide. He has proposed a “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” that would require universities to disclose expected post-grad earnings on a given degree before a student takes out loans to fund it. A couple of new investment schemes would accompany these reforms. Rubio proposes the implementation of student investment plans through which college students could partner with private investors to fund their tuition in exchange for a certain percentage of their earnings upon graduation. He furthermore promotes post-graduate loan repayment schedules that are based proportionally on each graduate’s income.

The Dems Breakdown

Former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton seeks to address loan debt through the New College Compact, a plan to introduce no-debt tuition nationwide by way of an adjusted balance among all parties involved. Students would contribute by working at least 10 hours per week at or near their universities, with families expected to make an “affordable and reasonable” contribution based on an individually based affordability formula. In addition, federal grants would be awarded to states that commit to the no-debt initiative, and states would be expected to maintain current levels of higher education funding and reinvest over time. Students or graduates already burdened by student debt would be given the opportunity to refinance their loans at lower interest rates. Their debt repayments, capped at 10 percent of post-graduate income, would expire after 20 years.

The plan proposed by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is simple: tuition-free education. Naïve as it may seem on the surface, the idea has received an enthusiastic endorsement from former secretary of labor Robert Reich. Sanders seeks to eliminate federal profit from student loans and cut interest rates on those loans almost in half. The plan promises to triple the size of the federal work-study programs and guarantees need-based federal, state and institutional aid to cover room and board, books and additional living expenses.

The International Business Times recently released a report decrying Vice President Joe Biden’s legislative history as a hardass on bankruptcy, particularly in the case of student debtors nationwide. It cites crackdowns from the 1970s through the ‘90s that essentially require student debtors filing for bankruptcy to meet a certain standard of hopelessness—evidence of “undue hardship” indicating that their financial circumstances will likely never improve without erasure of past loans. The clincher is the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which further restricted bankruptcy protections for debtors who had taken out both public and private loans. Regardless, should the popular Democrat decide to run, polls suggest he could overtake Clinton in favorability.

Kelsey Knorp is a fourth year Global Studies major. Before serving as National Beat Reporter, Kelsey was both the Associated Students Beat and Isla Vista Beat Reporter.