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How 2020 presidential candidates would address ‘albatross’ of student debt

Student debt affects millions of Americans and is an issue shaping the 2020 presidential race. On average, students leave college owing $29,600; for black students, the number is $34,000. Lisa Desjardins reports on candidate proposals to address the problem and talks to NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz about how they might work to reduce student debt and make college more affordable.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We continue our coverage now of some of the key issues already shaping the 2020 race for president.

    One of them is an issue that has already resonated strongly in the last campaign, the burden of college student debt.

    In the early months of this race, that problem is a focus for even more candidates, and it's one of the central issues being discussed.

    Lisa Desjardins helps break down some of the key dividing lines of what the candidates say they would do.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Anybody in here have student loan debt?

  • Andrew Yang:

    How many of you all have student loan debt? You all look kind of young.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    How many of you are dealing with student debt?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This has become a common sight on the campaign trail. In 2019, people who held student loan debt, either private or federal, owed a collective $1.5 trillion. Three Democratic candidates for president would also raise their hands. Each is currently paying off student loans for themselves or their spouse.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    This is kind of a personal issue for us, because Chasten and I live with six-figure student debt.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.:

    I have two kids under 2, I'm paying off my student loans.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    2020 candidates' ideas divide in a few ways. Primarily, some would cut college costs with different forms of free tuition. Others tackle the debt end, with plans to erase or cut debt.

    Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren does both, with one of the most detailed plans in the race. She wants to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all students and expand the Pell Grant system for lower-income students to cover other college costs.

    But Warren's most striking proposal is to pay for up to $50,000 in student loan debt per person, depending on a family's income. Warren estimates her plan would cost an estimated $1.25 trillion over 10 years. She would fund it with a new tax on the richest Americans.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    There are literally tens of millions of Americans who are being crushed by outstanding student loan debt.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A few others would also erase some student debt.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Our plan will cancel a substantial amount of student debt and in some ways probably go further than Senator Warren's.

  • Andrew Yang:

    I would forgive a lot of that student loan debt, in an argument for stimulus.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A larger group of candidates tackle how much debt college students rack up in the first place. Some of those want to make tuition free for all students at public two- or four-year colleges across the country.

    It's an idea that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pushed for in 2016.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    We should have free tuition at public colleges and universities. That should be a right of all Americans, regardless of the income of their families.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But some of the candidates are worried about benefiting wealthy families.

  • Beto O’ Rourke:

    No, I'm not for free college for all.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke says he wants to focus on lower-income communities.

  • Beto O’ Rourke:

    Because I want to make sure that we're also not paying the full freight of wealthy Americans at a time of historic wealth and income inequality.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    O'Rourke and others propose what they call debt-free higher education that wouldn't make tuition free for everyone, but instead it would help students who can't afford their college costs to graduate without debt.

    Several senators co-sponsored a bill in 2018 to do this, making sure that, after tuition, room, board, books and other expenses are paid for, students do not have to take out any loans.

    On the more moderate end of the spectrum, many candidates are calling for a refinancing of existing student loan debt at a lower rate. And President Trump has also made some changes to student loan policy while in office.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Student loan debt, I'm going to work to fix it, because it's outrageous what's happening.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He called for a cap on student loans, in the hopes that this would force colleges to reduce their costs.

    Just to fill out the larger picture a bit more, here's what the latest numbers show. The average debt for a college student is more than $29,000. For black students, it's even higher, an average debt of more than $34,000. That's higher than for any other racial or ethnic group.

    Anya Kamenetz is an education reporter for NPR. She watches this, and joins us now.

    Anya, let's start right away with, what is the problem exactly in terms of paying for higher education right now?

  •  Anya Kamenetz:

    Well, the problem is multilayered.

    I mean, nobody expected, when we created this federal student aid system, that it would end up being skewed so heavily towards debt and that tuition would continue to rise. But, really, as long as higher education remains the ultimate ticket to a middle class, it's going to be very hard for families to opt out of it.

    And public colleges and universities, as well as private colleges, do continue to raise tuition. So, this is kind of the bind that we're in right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is obviously a very high-ranking issue, especially for Democrats, ranking just after health care.

    But it's complicated, right? Because there's an issue of what's equitable. Can you talk about, if you're helping students, different students shoulder debts in different ways? Can you hit on that debate?

  •  Anya Kamenetz:

    Absolutely.

    So, fundamentally, right, people with higher education in this country are better off than people without it. So, when you start talking about targeting federal money toward people who have higher education, immediately, you're talking about possibly a more advantaged group.

    Now, some plans, like Elizabeth Warren's, have been trying to really target that aid, so that they're reaching the groups that you mentioned, like African-Americans or lower-income people, and that the debt relief goes there. We really don't want to end up with a system with, say, dentists or doctors who have six figures in student loan debt, but also have very high incomes, end up absorbing a huge amount of the federal debt relief.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One of the things I think is confusing for folks is just the terminology, debt-free vs. tuition-free. I think, for a student, all of that sounds pretty good.

    But can you take us through how you look at that — those two ideas?

  •  Anya Kamenetz:

    Sure.

    I think this is really important, especially when we talk about presidential candidates, because, on the one hand, free public college, this is a topic or an idea that Bernie Sanders put on the table in the 2016 election campaign.

    The catch is that we don't have a federal public college system. We have a state public college system. And so any kind of federal proposal would really just be offering matching funds and trying to fund tuition at public colleges, universities, maybe community colleges, but that wouldn't necessarily be something that states would agree to.

    So, tuition funding is something — is one thing. Debt relief or debt forgiveness is a little bit different. And talking about kind of just funding the money that students borrow or forgiving those loans, that is something that the federal government has the ability to kind of do with the stroke of a pen.

    Now, the argument becomes, if you're forgiving loans, you're forgiving perhaps people who didn't — borrowed more. Maybe they didn't work their way as much through college. And so people start to say, well, I got — I worked harder, and I didn't get my loans, and this person is getting more money back.

    So that's where these arguments kind of start.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm curious, what do you think? How fast and how far has the Democratic field in particular moved on this whole idea of education funding, higher ed?

  •  Anya Kamenetz:

    It really is a middle-class kitchen table issue. It's not just a generational issue. You have got retirees facing student debt.

    And so I think, with Bernie Sanders putting this on the table really in the 2016 election with his call for free college, you now have almost all of the candidates trying to put a stake in the ground and say, yes, I stand for reducing the burden of debt, not just because it's for getting Americans more educated, but also because people need these loans forgiven, so that they can start businesses, so that they can buy homes, maybe start families, and really participate in American life.

    It's really a broad recognition, I think, that student loan debt has become an albatross around the neck of many of the middle class.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Anya Kamenetz, I know you will be following everyone's record on this. And we appreciate it.

  •  Anya Kamenetz:

    Thank you so much, Lisa.

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