Steve Bullock: What my $100,000 in student debt taught me


Student loan

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Editor’s note: Steve Bullock is one of 10 presidential candidates taking part in a Democratic debate Tuesday, July 30, at 8:00 p.m. ET, on CNN. Ten others will debate on Wednesday evening. He is the governor of Montana. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic debate, we’re hearing a lot of candidates talk about making college free and paying off all student loan debt.

Like those Americans fortunate enough to go to college, the student debt problem is personal for me. I wasn’t in a position to foot the bill up front. College visits were beyond my family’s financial means, so I showed up to classes without having ever visited campus.

I worked my way through every semester clearing tables, filling pop machines and doing whatever else I could to help ease the burden.

In law school, I showed up with a credit card and borrowed my way to a degree. When I graduated, I had over $100,000 in loans — more than $175,000 in today’s dollars.

I will never forget the day my wife, Lisa, and I finally paid off our student debt.

As we consider how to make college more affordable and accessible, though, we cannot forget the nearly two in three American adults who don’t have a college degree. What is the next President going to do for their futures? How is our debate helping build their career success and long-term financial security?

Before millions of Americans tune in to hear about the Democratic Party’s plan to move beyond Trump, we must ask ourselves — what is our plan to make their lives better?

The fact is, while promises of free college and total loan forgiveness make for flashy press releases, they aren’t serious solutions for most people’s daily lives.

Let’s look at the numbers. Paying off the outstanding student loans in this country would cost at least $1.6 trillion, and one third of all that debt is owned by the wealthiest quarter of all Americans. Paying the bill for all students who get into college would add significantly to that cost.

With four in five Americans not carrying any student debt to begin with, these proposals could spend trillions on a bailout that would only benefit 20% of Americans.

As I meet with folks across the country, they repeatedly tell me this election should be about ideas that work. They don’t need more big promises that look good in a tweet but fail to deliver real change.

So, what can we do?

We can start with a smart approach to lowering student debt. We should limit student loan interest rates and crack down on predatory debt services that charge exorbitant rates. You shouldn’t be charged more for a loan to go to school than for a loan to buy a home.

We should end the fly-by-night for-profits like Trump University that squeeze profits out of vulnerable families. We should incentivize more employers to partner with their employees to pay down their debts. We should make more aid available to those who need it most. And we should keep our promise of loan forgiveness to those who commit to a career in public service, while expanding the scope of this commitment to underserved communities and small towns.

As Governor, I’ve seen how a focus on serious solutions can make for tangible progress in people’s everyday lives. While most states were balancing their budgets on the backs of students, I froze college tuition by investing more into higher education. As a result, we have the fourth lowest in-state tuition and fees in the nation. We ensured our two-year colleges offer robust opportunities for apprenticeships and credentials, in addition to degrees, to open pathways to good jobs without years of school.

If we can do that in Montana, we can do that in states all across the country.

That’s why I’ll ensure every American can access two-year community college as well as career and technical education programs without the need for loans. You shouldn’t have to invest the time and money into a four-year education just to gain the skills for a lifetime of fulfilling work.

We should follow the success we’ve had in my state and expand access to our skills and apprenticeship training programs. Right now, a student can use Pell Grants to study biology but not to learn how to weld. They ought to be able to do both.

This has to be a campaign about serious solutions. As a governor of a state that Trump won by 20 points, I’ve always had to focus on practical ideas in order to get progressive things done.

Let’s make this a campaign grounded in the issues Americans face every day. Let’s make sure that we finally fulfill the promise of a fair shot for everyone.

As Democrats, we can’t let this debate become disconnected from peoples’ everyday lives. If we do, we’ll lose this election. And it won’t be a surprise to anyone who lives outside the Washington bubble.

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