At last night's GOP debate, after Becky Quick questioned Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s dicey personal finances (facing foreclosure on a second home and liquidating a retirement account, his lavish spending and trouble with debt), the Florida senator addressed his own student loan debt saga.
“I didn’t inherent any money,” he said. “I had to borrow money to go to school, trying early in my marriage explaining to my wife why someone named Sallie Mae was taking $1,000 out of our bank account every month.”
The Democrats -- particularly Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders -- are concerned with lowering student loan interest rates and discussed their plans at length during their CNN debate. By contrast, beyond Rubio's discussion of the issue, Ohio Governor John Kasich proposed opportunities for high school students to earn college credit before matriculation and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush weighed in that states should be in charge of controlling college costs and limiting debt.
Throughout the campaign, Bush has advocated for making college cheaper and ending student loans altogether. Of course, in a bout of hypocrisy, Bush is a long-time supporter of for-profit colleges, as is Rubio; those institutions couldn't exist without access to federal money in the form of loans to their students. They haven't faltered despite the fact that for-profit Corinthian Colleges is under attack from federal and state regulators.
Trump, too, has slammed for-profit colleges and the Department of Education for making profits on student loans. By contrast, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has mentioned his own paid-off student loans, but he's done little in support of current borrowers and voted against Warren’s student loan refinance bill in the Senate.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, largely absent from the debate tonight, has supported student loan refinancing. That puts him in clear alignment with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's 2014 Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinance Act, one that floundered in the Senate. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced in April that all college tuition should be tax deductible, an inventive tax strategy that seems quite in contrast with a lot of the flat tax proposals that were bandied about the stage this evening.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has not weighed in much on the student loan debate despite having kids in expensive colleges -- Princeton and Notre Dame.
Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and president of MK Consulting Inc. in Las Vegas agrees this non-committal lambasting of an issue without clear solutions is typical.
“Political candidates often do not give specific plans, and use proxies so that the proposals aren't official," he said. "Marco Rubio may be the main exception, since he has proposed several bills relating to student loans...and has the most personal experience with student loans."
To bring some levity to the issue, Rubio joked about the windfall he received that bailed him out of student loan hell.
CNBC's Quick noted that Rubio had an unconventional solution to his six-figure student loan debt through a book deal of over $1 million. "And I used it to pay off my loans, and it's available on paperback," he said.
In terms of brass tacks, all of the Republican candidates have called for increased college accountability and transparency, Kantrowitz risk-sharing of defaulted federal loans and lower college costs. Kantrowitz points out some specifics below (with candidates listed in alphabetical order):
- Ben Carson: Wants colleges responsible for paying the interest on student loans and students for the principal balance. Thinks students should pay their own way through college by working a few years before, during and after. Dismisses President Obama's proposal for free community college tuition.
- Carly Fiorina: Wants to drive down rates by increasing competition in student loan marketplace.
- Chris Christie: Criticized decline in the Federal Perkins loan. Called for more funding for financial aid for low-income students. Supports income-based repayment and refinancing student loans. Explored pay-it-forward model. Criticizes debt-free college proposals.
- Donald Trump: Proposed public financing of federal student loans. Says that the government shouldn't make money on student loans.
- Jeb Bush: Has a market-oriented approach. Favors for-profit colleges and lenders. Favors alternatives to higher education programs (e.g., boot camps). Would incentivize colleges to drive down costs and improve quality. Wants to cut debt by cutting college costs.
- John Kasich: As governor of Ohio, proposed student loan forgiveness for graduates from Ohio's public colleges who take jobs in the state.
- Lindsay Graham: Would let students refinance loans at lower rates. Would increase competition in student loan marketplace. Would provide loan forgiveness to teachers.
- Marco Rubio: Proposed income-share agreements, similar to pay-as-you-earn repayment. Proposed better disclosures of debt and income at graduation and graduation rates. Like President Obama, paid off his own six-figure student loan debt by writing a book, a strategy that is not available to most college graduates.
- Mike Huckabee: Proposed public financing of federal student loans. Supports national service. Supports scholarships for exceptional low-income high school graduates. Would allow students to refinance student loans at lower interest rates.
- Rand Paul: Proposed making college tuition and student loan debt tax deductible, without income phaseouts. Would eliminated the education tax credits (AOTC, Lifetime Learning). Proposed allowing students to refinance student loans at lower interest rates. Proposed freezing funding for the Federal Pell Grant. Would abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
- Ted Cruz: Voted in favor of current federal student loan interest rates, which are fixed for the life of the loan, but where each year's new loans have a new interest rate pegged to the 10-year Treasury with various caps. Wants to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. Would not allow borrowers to refinance federal loans at lower interest rates (voted against Sen. Warren's proposal).