Millennial Candidates Flex Their Relatability: I, Too, Have College Debt

But Swalwell and Buttigieg split over what to do about the student debt crisis.

California Congressman Eric Swalwell has staked his candidacy for president on his youthful perspective, arguing that the country’s unequal economy has uniquely affected young adults in debt who are trying to start families and buy their first homes.

So naturally, he took the first major swipe at 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden during Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, saying that it’s time for older politicians to “pass on the torch” to a new generation of lawmakers to fix the student debt crisis.


“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans … 32 years ago," Swalwell said. “If we’re going to solve the issue of student loan debt, pass the torch.”

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The 38-year-old freshman from California made the issue personal, saying he owes over $100,000 in student loans. Swalwell has proposed a pathway for students to attend college debt-free if they participate in work-study programs and commit to community service.

It’s a markedly different position from the debate’s other millennial participant, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who also referred to student loan debt as a “personal” issue for him and husband Chasten Buttigieg, both of whom have “six-figure” student debt.

Unlike the more sweeping affordable education proposals suggested by candidates like Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren, the 37-year-old Buttigieg has argued against an option for universal tuition-free college.

Pressed about his thinking on Thursday night, Buttigieg said he doesn’t want to use taxpayer dollars to fund the education of wealthy families.

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“I don't believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition," Buttigieg said in response to a question from moderator Jose Diaz-Balart. He has previously endorsed the expansion of Pell Grants for more students.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who appeared on the debate stage Wednesday, has also dismissed the idea of free public college, saying that she’s not a “magic genie.”

Cover: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) looks on as Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)