Student Debt: The Costs Behind Higher Education

Examining The Financial Burden Of "The Best Four Years Of Your Life"


By Gillian Hand

Despite the crucial role of education in American prosperity and individual success, numerous citizens who hope to attend college are discouraged by the threat of debilitating student debt. In fact, Americans currently owe $1.5 trillion in student loans, a continuously growing number that serves as a 350% increase from the debt levels in 2003.[1] While the government grapples with its vision for the alleviation of the crisis, states are pursuing their own plans of action, such as loan forgiveness programs and other forms of financial support. However, it is essential that these efforts are supported by federal reforms that give every citizen an opportunity to pursue higher education without the pressures of lifelong debt. The 2020 presidential election will undoubtedly be a battleground for discussions of student debt reform, with a wide field of potential Democratic nominees voicing their own proposals alongside criticisms of the current administration.

It can be incredibly difficult for students to escape the trap that is a student loan. Weak job opportunities for young graduates often result in these workers frequently struggling to make enough money to pay back their loans, keeping them confined by the crushing weight of student debts. Minority communities have been found to be particularly affected by the debt crisis, with many of these students being unable to pursue a higher education due to the inevitable loans that will follow them throughout their lives.[2] The student debt crisis threatens not only the future of the United States economy but also the financial security and freedom of Americans, 44 million of whom are currently trapped in the depths of this crisis.[3] It is crucial that lawmakers invest efforts and resources in the transformation of the student loan system by offering students an achievable and debt-free path to higher education.

        According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers across the nation have set their sights on the student debt crisis. Recent state legislation has produced nearly 200 bills with a variety of debt solutions including loan forgiveness, priority of specific professions and new tax credits. 119 of these bills would create or expand student loan forgiveness programs, with many targeting specific professions in fields such as health care and education.[4] This legislation showcases how states are now taking the initiative in the alleviation of student debt, offering their own solutions in the absence of federal efforts. Should the nation fail to address the student debt crisis as it stands, the loans will only worsen, exacerbating the debt crisis and keeping millions of Americans from financial security and possibly higher education itself.

        In addition to these state reforms, there have also been efforts at the federal level to address this crisis.  The Trump administration recently released several proposed changes to the Higher Education Act, including the reduction of federal loan repayment options as well as the capping of the amount of student loans that parents and graduate students can take on.[5] The White House claims that schools are largely responsible for the student debt crisis, as colleges tend to drive up their tuitions and are often unwilling to work to make education more affordable. The schools themselves, however, argue that they are forced to raise tuition in the wake of funding reductions from state legislatures and insufficient support from the government. This call for greater federal support of institutions of higher education is echoed by many Democrats, including Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. Murray remarked that Trump’s plan does not address the true source of the problem: the skyrocketing college prices that burden students with massive amounts of debt. Murray also noted that the proposal would likely hurt citizens in the long run by reducing the amount of federal aid allocated for students.[6] 

        The Department of Education has also been active in the realm of student loans. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed a plan calling for the termination of a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and the elimination of subsidized loans for low-income students. Currently, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program forgives remaining student debt sums after eligible workers make ten years of on-time payments, particularly helping public service professionals such as social workers, primary care doctors, public defenders, and teachers.[7] The Department under Devos has been attempting to repeal Obama-era policies, arguing that the student loan forgiveness programs under Obama are costly to taxpayers and unfair to colleges. While Devos and other conservatives find existing policies too lenient, federal courts have rebuffed these attempts thus far, forcing the Department to continue the programs.[8] Looking ahead, Devos has requested $130 million in next year’s budget to upgrade the student loan servicing system. Democrats, however, worry that this is not a step to help students afford higher education and pay back student loans but rather a gutting of financial aid money that will worsen the debt crisis in the long run.[9] 

        As we approach the 2020 presidential election, student debt remains a popular issue in the large field of potential Democratic nominees. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kristen Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker—all Democratic candidates for 2020—recently co-sponsored the Debt-Free College Act of 2019, which aims to offer federal funding to institutions that commit to helping students pay tuition without burdening them with staggering debt. Other candidates have voiced support for developments similar to Bernie Sanders’ “College for All Act”, which supports tuition-free college for low-income students. Some potential nominees are even drawing attention to Trump’s debt policies in order to highlight their own opposition to his administration, taking advantage of a key issue that might be popular with the Democratic base’s large population of young voters.[10] It is evident that student loan reform will play an important role in 2020 campaigns as Democratic candidates address these debt issues and condemn the deficiencies of the current administration.

        While there might not yet be a clear solution to the problem, steps should certainly be taken to support affected citizens by ensuring that money is not removed from programs designed to help them. There are many faces of the student debt crisis and numerous shortcomings with the higher education system itself; while state action is undeniably important, federal reform is needed to remove this primary barrier to education and financial security. Supporting federal efforts such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s student debt relief plan will be essential in the alleviation of these enormous burdens, and advancements such as loan forgiveness programs are both necessary and possible. The movement to combat student debt and provide affordable education requires these federal standards as a base that will inspire state efforts going forward. The reform of student loans should be a priority in modern education policy and will play a crucial role in the presidential campaigns of 2020.


[1] Hess, Abigail. “Trump Administration Proposes Capping Student Loans, Cutting Repayment Options-Here's What That Means for Borrowers.” CNBC, NBC Universal , 20 Mar. 2019,

[2] Swig, Mary Green. “A Movement Emerges to Free Former Students from Crushing Loan Debts.” Common Dreams, 23 June 2018,

[3] “Our Story.” Our Story | Freedom to Prosper,

Stratford, Michael, et al. “Betsy DeVos Strikes out - in Court.” POLITICO, Politico LLC, 21 Mar. 2019,

[4] Stratford, Michael, et al. “Betsy DeVos Strikes out - in Court.” POLITICO, Politico LLC, 21 Mar. 2019,

[5] Hess, “Trump Administration Proposes Capping Student Loans, Cutting Repayment Options-Here's What That Means for Borrowers.”

[6] Binkley, Collin. “White House Proposes Caps on Student Loan Borrowing.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 18 Mar. 2019,

[7]Lobosco, Katie. “DeVos Wants to Cut Budget Funding for Student Loan Forgiveness, Again.” CNN, Cable News Network, 13 Mar. 2019,

[8] Stratford, “Betsy DeVos Strikes out - in Court.”

[9] Lobosco, “DeVos Wants to Cut Budget Funding for Student Loan Forgiveness, Again.”


[10] Norris, Courtney. “Where 2020 Democrats Stand on Student Loans, Teacher Pay and Other Education Issues.” PBS News Hour, Public Broadcasting Service, 15 Apr. 2019,