The hashtag CancelStudentDebt trended on Twitter in the days leading up to the first round of Democratic primary debates, which took place on June 26 and 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. But how do individual college grads and students feel about the presidential candidates' proposals to address the student loan crisis?
Grow spoke to four current and former college students to get their opinions. Three of them have student loans: Collectively, they owe over $100,000. The fourth purposely avoided taking out student loans and is currently debt-free.
Here are their stories, as well as their reactions to the ongoing conversation about how to address the student loan crisis.
Debt: $50,000 and counting
Hockaday accumulated $50,000 in debt during her undergraduate program at Chamberlain College of Nursing. She is currently working toward becoming a family nurse practitioner and anticipates she will take on another $30,000 in student loans to pay for her master's degree.
For Hockaday, the solution to the debt crisis is a no-brainer: Total debt cancellation.
It's an idea backed by Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose College for All Act calls for a one-time cancellation of the $1.6 trillion in overall student loan debt and the elimination of tuition and fees at two- and four-year public colleges and universities.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren's plan, which is similar, calls for the cancellation of up to $50,000 in student loan debt for the majority of borrowers and free college for everyone by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Hockaday says that she knows of many people who don't pursue higher education and stop short of fulfilling their career goals because they don't want to be saddled with student loans. Debt cancellation, she suggests, would change that.
"There are people out there that are working tirelessly to grow their career, intellect, [and] overall just to prosper in life," says Hockaday. "Why must we be burdened with debt after the fact?"
Gonzalez, a network engineer, is currently taking courses online and working towards his degree in IT at Western Governors University. Upon completion, he estimates he will have about $13,000 in student loans. And he objects to the Warren and Sanders debt cancellation plans.
"The [cancelled student loan] debt will just be absorbed by taxes," he says. "By absorbing the debt, you are forcing people to pay for other people's schooling even if they've never gone to college, which will just force taxes to increase."
Instead, Gonzalez suggests that prospective students should be allowed to borrow money in proportion to their expected salaries. Those earning degrees in STEM-related fields which, typically, lead to jobs that pay higher salaries, should be eligible to borrow more than students pursuing liberal arts degrees, he says, because they will likely earn less.
Burger, a teacher in the Miami-Dade County public school district, deliberately avoided student debt: When she attended Florida International University (FIU) in the early 1990s, tuition cost about $1,200 annually. (Currently, FIU's tuition is just shy of $7,000 per year for in-state students.)
Burger doesn't support debt cancellation but says that using education credits to make community colleges and trade schools a more viable option for students who can't afford a four-year university is one possible solution to the debt crisis.
"I think the kids should get a credit for two years of community college or trade school. And future generations should have two years of community college or trade school paid for," she says. "If someone accrues massive student loan debt, that's on them."
Dacillo, a Filipino-American who studied nursing at Southwestern University and supports debt cancellation, believes that those opposed to Sanders' debt cancellation plan were "privileged enough to not have to take out loans." The wealth gap, which separates those who can and those who cannot afford to attend elite four-year universities, he says, has hindered minorities and low-income Americans from moving up the economic ladder.
"A country's progression depends on the population's education, and the reason we have the system we have today is because the privileged have been able to keep most of the people uneducated," he says.
Studies show that students of color are more likely to borrow money for college at higher rates and will have a harder time paying their loans off after graduating due to higher unemployment rates among most minority groups. An estimated 86.8% of black students borrow federal student loans to attend a four-year public college, as opposed to only 59.9% of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Both Warren and Sanders say their plans will address the wealth and racial gaps in higher education by increasing spending on Pell grants for nontuition expenses and funding for schools that cater to minority students, such as historically black colleges and universities.
Student loan debt affects 45 million Americans, who owe a collective $1.6 trillion in student loans, and is shaping the way many young people see their financial futures. How to address the crisis has become a central part of the conversation among those competing to be the next Democratic presidential candidate.
The 2020 elections are still a long time away, though, and they may not change much, if anything. Luckily, there are steps you can take now to begin tackling your student debt:
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