As Midterm Elections Approach, Student Debt Key for Youth Voters

By Emily Isaacman, Communications Intern

With outstanding student loans now totalling $1.521 trillion, educational debt is a prominent issue for many young people across the country. But because this group has historically been much less reliable at the polls compared to older Americans, politicians tend to neglect topics younger generations care about, leaving student debt problems, among others, to mount. As the 2018 midterm elections approach, increased political action among young Americans could indicate they are tired of this cycle — and ready for change.

Aaron Ghitelman, director of communications for voter registration organization HeadCount, said the political enthusiasm young people are demonstrating this year is incomparable. Seeing how decisions in federal and local government affect their daily lives, Ghitelman said these millennials and post-millennials want politicians to address the “affordability of life,” including topics like salaries, rent, and college tuition. While the cost of higher education is not the most salient matter for the general population, its pervasive effects on a growing youth voter bloc could fortify its place on future campaign trails.

“Young people will vote at the exact same rates as older people will if politicians speak to the issues that affect our lives,” Ghitelman said.

Candidates first started capitalizing on student debt as a mobilization tactic in the 2016 elections. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton promoted free college proposals as signature campaign pieces, devoting more attention to higher education than most presidential candidates in recent history.

NextGen America, another organization recruiting youth voters this year, reports students consistently rank college affordability as one of four top concerns.

“I think this is something that is all-consuming for the majority of students,” said Aleigha Cavalier, NextGen’s communications director.

But as a starkly different political climate faces the electorate in 2018, Tamara Hiler, deputy director of higher education for center-left think tank Third Way, said education is not nearly as central to this election as it was in 2016. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, the general electorate ranks immigration, the economy, and healthcare as top concerns.

Even if some candidates are highlighting college affordability, they might not achieve as much sway as Sanders did two years ago. Ghitelman says he is hearing fewer young people talk about student loan debt this year compared to 2016, perhaps because the nature of a congressional election makes it difficult for a single candidate to command the national media.

“I don’t think that makes it any less pressing of an issue,” Ghitelman said.

While other topics dominate public discourse, there are signs student loan debt talks are brewing among politicians. Dianne May, communications director for Sanders’ grassroots political organization, Our Revolution, said all candidates the group has endorsed address education in their platforms. Although only a handful are running on free-tuition policies, May said this is more than she saw in 2016.

“The more we talk about it, the more that [free college] will become a serious policy idea,” May said.

She pointed to Medicare for All, a proposal long on the outskirts of the Democratic party, as an example of how sustaining dialogue on an issue can eventually turn a “joke” into a legitimate idea. Sanders has been advocating for single-payer healthcare for decades, May said. Last week, 60 House Democrats formed a Medicare for All Caucus, with more expected to join.  

Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research with the Education Policy program at New America, said Democrats’ work around college affordability has anticipated what many are calling a leftward shift in the party.

More Democratic candidates are identifying as progressive than in the previous two election cycles, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution. Although many will compete for districts Republicans are likely to win in November, the number of progressives winning primary House elections has more than doubled since 2016.

In a recent upset, the California Democratic Party endorsed progressive newcomer Kevin de León rather than moderate incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who won the primary by a significant margin. De León’s platform includes a comprehensive plan for higher education reform; Feinstein’s does not mention it.

Another shock came in late June, when 28-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), a longtime House member. Ocasio-Cortez is campaigning on tuition-free college and student loan debt cancellation, along with a slew of progressive causes.

May said younger candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, who likely have more immediate memories of repaying their student loans, could shift campaign rhetoric to better resonate with the growing youth voter bloc.

Students across the country have exhibited an unprecedented level of political activism since the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February. Hundreds of thousands of students gathered in Washington to call for gun reform at the March for Our Lives, forging gun control debates into Congress.

Many organizations are working to continue this grassroots involvement. HeadCount, which appeals to young people by organizing voter registration drives at concerts, has more than doubled its 2016 mobilization levels at three major festivals this year. This is especially remarkable for a midterm election, Ghitelman said, when turnout rates are typically much lower for all demographics.

In midterm elections from 1974 to 2010, citizens ages 18 to 29 voted at approximately half the rates of those over age 30, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

But a Harvard poll this spring conveyed a different outlook: 37 percent of Americans under age 30 said they will “definitely” vote in November, up 14 percent from a similar poll before the 2014 midterm elections.

“People do come out to vote when they see a connection between voting and themselves,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus at The George Washington University and higher education expert.

An uptick in the youth voting bloc could bode well for the politics of higher education. Multiple studies have associated greater voting rates with a larger welfare state. And during the past fourteen years, youth have chosen Democratic House candidates — who generally favor higher levels of federal spending — by at least 10 percentage points.

While conversations on Capitol Hill have become more nuanced in the past couple of years, broadening from degree costs to accountability and value metrics, Hiler of Third Way said these topics won’t resonate with the average voter as much as the day-to-day challenge of paying for college.

“I think [student loan debt] will always be an important part of the higher education talk on the campaign trail,” Hiler said.


Publication Date: 7/25/2018

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