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Burdened students confront candidates on college loans

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shook hands at the New Hampshire Primary Student Convention last week.Jim Cole/Associated Press

MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was the last question for Ohio Governor John Kasich at his town hall meeting, but first 19-year-old Jimmy Nguyen asked hundreds of his fellow students at the New Hampshire Primary Student Convention to raise their hands if their tuition costs exceed $15,000 a year.

Nearly every hand in the room went up — including his.

“What are you going to do as president to make college more affordable?” the sophomore asked Kasich. “It’s no longer as affordable as it was before, like when you went to college.”

Faced with mounting debt, young people often cite the cost of college — and the enormous amount of student loans needed to cover the tab — as one of their most important issues in the presidential race. But current generations of students, many of whom will vote for president for the first time in 2016, have another problem. Most reform plans would do little to ameliorate the strain of their already accumulating debt.

Even though last week’s student convention, which was hosted by New England College, was dedicated to other issues, such as exploring issue advocacy through the work of the AARP, climate change, and First and Second Amendment rights, student loan debt came uprepeatedly during eight town hall meetings with candidates.


Hundreds of high school and college students from across the country attended the convention, each with a story of how they plan to pay for college. A junior from New York plans to put off law school to pay down more than $30,000 in undergraduate loans. A community college student from Louisiana covers her $2,000-a-year tuition through federal grants and a school-based tuition waiver. Nguyen affords Virginia Commonwealth University because of scholarships, but even then he works two jobs.

Paris Henderson commutes two hours each day from Maryland to VCU in Richmond, where she transferred this school year after racking up $30,000 in debt at a private college.


“There ought to be some federal mandates in place to regulate the cost,” the 27-year-old political science major said. A single mother, she plans to attend law school in the fall. “It sounds socialist of me. It’s like saying ‘I want free school,’ but I don’t want free school, I want to be able to afford school.”

All 15 White House hopefuls — Democrats and Republicans — have acknowledged that the college financing system is broken. Costs balloon as millions of Americans borrow billions of dollars to keep pace. But candidates’ solutions vary far and wide.

The average in-state tuition at a four-year school — that’s not including books, housing, etc. — has more than doubled in the last 25 years. And nearly a third of the financial aid students receive to cover costs comes via loans from the federal government. In 2012, for example, Americans owed $914 billion — that’s nearly a trillion dollars — in federal student loans, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The presidential candidates have proposed an array of ideas to alleviate that debt.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pledged free tuition for all students at public universities. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky says the federal government should get out of the education business, which would open the market to more competition and drive down prices.

Former governor of Florida Jeb Bush has said the institutions must take more accountability, saying the system discourages early graduation. And Kasich says students must take more accountability.


“I’m wearing a North Face, it’s a brand,” Kasich said in his response to Nguyen. “Sometimes students pick higher education colleges based on a brand and not based on what their needs are, and then they pay for the fact that they are picking a brand rather than what fits them.”

He also outlined what he called a “practical and doable” plan that includes increasing opportunities for high school students to earn college credit and easing the transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year university.

Former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley can relate to the predicament many students and their families face. He and his wife borrowed thousands of dollars so his daughters could attend — and graduate from — Georgetown University and College of Charleston.

“We’re going to be proud of them for the rest of our natural lives at this rate,” he said. Referring to the student loan debt, “I’m right in the middle of this,” he said.

He proposes asking states to freeze tuition, providing federal matching grants to those who do, increasing federal grants for low-income students, and working to allow students and parents to refinance existing debt.

Shante Miller is a sophomore at New England College with dreams of becoming a forensic scientist, a dream she might have to realize elsewhere because of the private, liberal arts college’s $50,000-a-year price tag.


The New York native’s mother has already taken out $23,000 in federal loans to cover the costs, but a $7,000 gap remains, Miller said. Now, her options are borrowing money from a private lender or go elsewhere.

“I love my school, and I do want to stay,” the 20-year-old pre-med and criminology major said. But she also doesn’t want to continue burdening her mother, who is a home health care aide, with debt.

“It takes a toll on her because it messes with her credit,” Miller said.

Brian Pryor is on the job hunt after graduating from Central Connecticut State University in December. The 27-year-old history and geology major declined to say just how much money he’ll be paying back in student loans, but Pryor said he’s concerned about the economics of higher education and national debt.

Loan subsidies are a “redistribution of income” that affect the poor most and should be abolished, Pryor said while volunteering for Paul at the convention.

Hours earlier, Paul told the crowd the same thing.

“The government subsidizes the demand” by helping students go to college, but “the supply of colleges is finite,” he said. “If you increase the demand and keep the supply the same, the price has to go up. That’s fundamental economics.”

And, Paul continued: “Who gets hurt worse by rising prices? The rich or the poor? Rich people can always afford more groceries. If you’re poor, you don’t.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.