OPINION: 2020 candidates must support access to higher education

With 2020 presidential campaigns in full swing, this has to be the election year that millennial and, in particular, college-aged voters, get off the sidelines.  Not only do we all have a moral obligation to vote with so many fundamental human rights at stake, but we also have a critical, personal interest in doing so.

Student loan debt and college affordability are two of the most pressing issues our generation faces. Both of these — debt and lack of access to higher education institutions like USC — snowball into long-term economic disasters: a limited job market, a limited housing market and intergenerational economic disenfranchisement.

The 2020 presidential election offers a meaningful chance at change, to ensure that the students of today and the future can attend college without facing steep economic consequences. The harsh realities of our education system have rendered many opportunities to be accessible almost solely on the basis of wealth and economic status, as demonstrated by USC’s involvement in the nationwide college admission bribery case. And those who are only able to attend college through loans could soon face a ruthless, predatory student debt system without bold policy reforms.

Data in 2015 showed there was $1.2 trillion of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. As of last year, outstanding student loan debt increased to $1.5 trillion, affecting 44 million borrowers each with an average outstanding loan balance of $37,172.

College accessibility, of course, is a deeper and more nuanced issue than tuition and universities’ sticker prices. From the costs of standardized testing preparation to extracurricular activities to college counseling, access to higher education is influenced by many more economic factors.

Making higher education accessible to all without crippling debt will require long-term, systemic change and meaningful reforms to address economic inequity, at large. But lowering the costs of college to prevent debt and widen access, while establishing policies to forgive existing debt, are a strong starting point.

Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren currently leads the field with the boldest and most thorough plan to bolster college accessibility. Her plan would cancel all student loan debt and establish tuition-free public college. Her proposal would cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for 42 million Americans. The plan is supported by her previously released tax plan to establish a tax on the 75,000 wealthiest families in America.

Hopefully, other presidential candidates will follow her lead in fighting for college debt forgiveness and affordability as priorities in the Democratic Party agenda. A future without bold and urgent action on higher education is a dark one for ours and future generations.

College degrees have become largely essential to accessing good-paying jobs, yet paradoxically, college degrees have also become exponentially more inaccessible to many families, over the last few decades. There has never been a more urgent — or possible — time to address this crisis.

And it seems addressing this crisis could largely fall on the shoulders of those it impacts most. Voter turnout among college-aged, millennials saw positive improvements in the 2018 midterm elections, but has historically been and remains frustratingly abysmal. Hopefully, with a number of meaningful proposals for solutions to this crisis on the table, these polling numbers will change — and with them, an alarming culture of debt and college inaccessibility.