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Millennial Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Has Actual Ideas for Solving the Student Loan Crisis

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is in his 30s (!) and personally familiar with the specter haunting young people.

by Allie Conti
Mar 18 2019, 4:00am

Pete Buttigieg. Photo by Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Social image split with photo of college protesters in NYC by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Pete Buttigieg is a millennial who wants to become the most powerful man on the planet. But the 37-year-old isn't that delusional guy at your office who thinks his idea for a start-up is going to spare him the monotony of working for a living. The two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Afghanistan veteran is exploring a run for president, and although he's very much a long-shot candidate, the Democrat's campaign just said he cleared a fundraising threshold to qualify for June's first official DNC primary debate. That means even if he doesn't make any noise in the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, Americans may soon be hearing a lot more from a young person who entered the prime of his professional life in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

With that in mind, Buttigieg called me up from South Bend last week to talk about one specific issue: the student debt crisis. We chatted about how he might work to revamp the system if elected, including where he stood on everything from the relatively radical idea of debt cancellation to the need for states to step up and fund public education like they did in the past. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.



VICE: I wanted to start talking a little bit about your personal experience with student debt before we get into some of my more policy-related questions. I know you mentioned in an interview at South by Southwest that your husband is pretty underwater.
Pete Buttigieg: Chasten is a teacher, so that involved getting a master's degree, and between the teacher training programs he was in as well as his bachelor's and master's, it's left us with a lot of debt. I had the great fortune of getting the Rhodes scholarship and was able to come through Harvard without a lot of debt. But between the two of us, we're going to have to deal with a lot of debt.

I'm curious as to how you think you'd compare yourself to somebody like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren who, as you know, have relatively progressive stances on education and student debt even though they haven't directly experienced the modern incarnations.
They belong to a generation that went to college at a time when America as a country and, even more significantly, our states, really did their parts to manage the cost of higher education. Not that it was easy for anybody, but I think maybe it was just more of a norm. Education was more something that, if you could qualify and were able to work, it would be priced reasonably. But I think we come at the issue in a pretty similar way. It's just still a little more personal for me. My grandfather decided that I should never have to pay for college, and so he did what you would do then, which is you got a savings bonds, for, I believe, $1,000. And the intent was that that would mature to a level that would cover my college expenses, which was a reasonable thing to believe in the 70s or 80s, for sure. Obviously, it just doesn't work that way now.

A lot of people in Congress still seem to think that you can pay for college doing part-time work over the summer and don't understand that the rules of the game have changed. But how do you convince people that your age is a boon rather that a disqualification when it comes to to tackling some of these entrenched problems?
Well, the way I look at it is you just have a different standing to talk about these issues when they're personal for you. It's one of the reasons why I often try to paint a picture of what the world would look like in 2054, because it's the year I get to the current age of the current president. And you know, I think everybody in this race cares about it, but I just think it's a little different when you're personally preparing for it.

Ours is a generation that was merged into the labor market at the time of the Great Recession, and I think it's just been shaped by that. And every generation makes its mark based on its experience. You go back to JFK, his inaugural address, he said something about how the torch had been passed to a new generation born in this century, which had been tempered by war and disciplined by a hard and bitter peace. So I don't mean to claim some unique personal authority, or that I'm the only one that gets these things, but I do think that when they're personal, you come at them with a different sense of urgency, for sure.

I'm anxious to see whether the other Democratic candidates in 2020 are mostly going to focus on people who already have debt or on those who haven't taken it on yet. Which is a priority for you, and how you kind of distinguish between the two as a politician given that they essentially affect different constituencies?
I think you probably are going to have two different lines of effort. If we target debt and not college costs alone, then it benefits everybody. So, for example, improving accessibility to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), expanding the cap on how much debt is forgiven to the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program—these are the things that stand to help those of us who've already graduated, and it could be a big difference maker for people going to school now, or even people, you know, sadly, [who] may be weighing whether going to school is a good move.

But I don't think we should choose one. What will we have to do is make sure that we start moving these debt loads in the right direction. And when you have folks with these six-figure debt loads, whether we talk about creating refinancing options or whether we talk about paths to loan forgiveness, or even just adjusting how income-based repayment works, we can make a move there that's somewhat retroactive as well as making it easier for the next folks who come along.

How do you feel about straight-up student debt cancellation, or if that's too extreme, how you feel about at least allowing people to declare bankruptcy on their student loans?
I think there should be a comprehensive strategy, and I'm not wedded to an individual element of that. So there may be trade-offs between how generous we want to make different forgiveness programs and what we do around bankruptcy, for example. But I think it should be considered. I mean we consider it in other credit markets, right? As long as it doesn't harm access to credit for a future generation of students. Wiping it away strikes me as a little bit harder to take on for a couple of reasons. Obviously, cost.

To backtrack for a second, I'm sure—given that your husband is a teacher—you have more thoughts on the complete failure of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
I think it's okay to have student loan forgiveness attached to certain things. And that's why the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for example, is so attractive. Right? It's sort-of an exchange of value. What I think we should be cautious about is—you know, it's not the same if you're going into a very high-income profession. And again, this might be partly my perspective as somebody who married a teacher, but you know, teachers get paid roughly 60 percent of what people with a comparable education in other fields [make].

But the whole logic of the current student loan subsidy system, especially the fact that that graduate student loans are more expensive or graduate student debt tends to be more expensive than undergrad, is based on the idea that the folks coming out of grad school are going to go be doctors and lawyers and among the wealthiest people in our society. And unfortunately that means you're doubly punished for doing something very honorable, like making the choice to become a teacher. And that's why I think it makes sense, if we're going to move in the direction of forgiveness, to have it be tied to income and not just some kind of blanket thing that makes no distinction between folks who are going to be just fine and are on their way to being in the 1 percent, and people who are struggling in the middle class and almost being punished for the fact that they got an education and used it to benefit others.

Totally. I think that's an important distinction. I'm curious as to how you think you can maybe incentivize a state school to lower their costs besides putting a cap on the amount of loans one can take out that are backed by the federal government?
A good place to begin is to make some federal support to states conditional on the level of support they're prepared to provide to students. So for example, we could tie these students' share of college costs to either an income metric or an affordability metric and then make some federal aid to states in the field of education contingent on them offering that up. Because what we've seen as a pattern is a lot of state schools have gone from being state-sponsored to state-subsidized to state-related—just providing less and less of that share. Now, the federal government could also pick up some of that slack. For example, if we reset the percentage of total cost of attendance that we think Pell Grants ought to be able to cover and properly funded that, it would take the edge off. But I still think that there needs to be a little more harmony among the states in terms of what they're willing to do to keep costs under control.

It constantly blows my mind that this isn't one of the biggest issues for almost all politicians. No one in an entire generation is going be able to buy houses, or in some cases even basic consumer goods. This seems poised to completely tank the economy.
This is somebody else's problem. They want to do the right thing, but in terms of where it falls among priorities, in the end, it's not quite the same as one that they can relate to directly.

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