Michael has roughly $44,000 in student loans. He’s already paid off about $2,000 of them, but from now until Election Day on November 3rd, 2020, he’s decided not to add another penny to that amount. After all, he’s positive one of the presidential candidates will end up spotting him the 44 grand.
“I strongly believe that Trump and whomever he will be running against will talk about student loans and the ways to solve the crippling debt many young people have,” explains the 24-year-old, who works in community engagement and outreach (Michael is not his real name). “I just don’t think anyone can win in 2020 without such a plan of action.”
Student loan debt, along with the possibility of free tuition at public universities, is a big topic among Democratic candidates. Progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are proposing radical changes to federal student loan debt policies. In fact, Warren introduced a bill this week that would cancel $50,000 in loan debt for every person with a household income under $100,000. Nearly all of the other Democratic candidates also support more discussion about debt forgiveness, even if they haven’t laid out specific plans.
As for Trump, he’s proposed consolidating repayment options into two plans: 1) a standard 10-year fixed rate; and 2) an income-driven plan that would offer loan forgiveness after 15 years.
Such possibilities have some young people, like Michael, believing that if they wait long enough, their loans will be erased. On Reddit, too, a community (r/studentloandefaulters) has popped up that provides graduates with strategies to default on their student loans, with each given a risk assessment. Converting private loans to federal is designated a low risk, while fleeing the country is a medium risk. The subreddit is a response to the more general student loans subreddit that routinely says the best way to get out from under debt is by paying it down.
The defaulters obviously disagree. “This is a forum for those who are coming to the realization that there may never be relief for student debtors, and that the time may be coming soon that we need to take matters into our own hands,” their description reads.
“I’m definitely waiting until something happens, and they go away,” my roommate Joseph tells me. He incurred more than $70,000 in loans by attending Howard University — an amount his earnings as a dog walker and occasional TV production assistant don’t cover. “I literally can’t pay them,” Joseph explains, noting he only makes enough to cover housing bills and getting wasted. Either way, he adds, “It’s not something I’m gonna let stress me out.”
The problem with Joseph’s plan is that the likelihood of any loan-forgiveness plan (whether it’s Warren’s, Sanders’ or Trump’s) accounting for the whole amount is basically a pipe dream. Not to mention, we’re still years away from any plan, if approved, being implemented.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow specializing in higher education finance at the Urban Institute. “They’re not going to forgive everybody’s debt, and certainly not in terms of these people who already owe money.”
Therefore, she concludes, “[Not paying] isn’t a reasonable approach — they’re going to go into default and pay a penalty — and I hope not too many people fall for it.”
In fairness, such tweets are mostly jokes, and the people behind them are usually (if reluctantly) paying back their loans. “I know no plan, even if approved, would help me before I finish paying, seeing as how things take forever when it comes to the government,” says 30-year-old Warren McDonald. He has just over $32,000 left to pay on a $59,000 loan total and estimates he’ll be done with it in five years. As such, a candidate’s loan-forgiveness plan isn’t that important to him: “It’s more of a cherry on top than part of the main meal.”
Other recent grads, however, figure it’s as good a chance as any for them to get back to even. “I’m doing the bare-minimum payment and kinda banking on them getting erased before I come close to paying them all back,” says Nick Brown, a 24-year-old freelance writer and waiter in Albany, New York. With about $30,000 in federal loans, he explains that if a candidate without a plan gets elected, “I’ll live and die with enormous debt.”
As for Joseph, when I ask him what he’ll do if Trump/Sanders/Warren/whoever doesn’t have a new plan in place once elected in 2020, he answers pragmatically: “I’ll pay some of them eventually if I have to.” He refuses to take any blame for his situation, though: “The government isn’t getting more money for something that should’ve been free to begin with.”