ROCHESTER, Mich. -- The Republican candidates came to college Wednesday night. But some of their responses to a question from undergraduates at Oakland University about the growing problem of student loan debt left students in this small town, 45 minutes north of Detroit, feeling cold. And Mitt Romney's stance that ending student loan debt will be as simple as fixing the economy is lacking, according to one expert.
Current and former students may owe as much as a total of $1 trillion in student loan debt by the end of this year. That number's growth is fast outpacing inflation. And while students are doing better on the job front than the rest of the population, college graduates are having their own difficulties finding the jobs with which they can pay off those loans.
To tell the story of the student loan "bubble" during its primary debate Wednesday night, CNBC showed a video of three Oakland undergraduates talking about how the issue was affecting their generation.
"Tuition rates have increased roughly three times that of inflation over the last three decades," said Maxwell van Raaphorst, class of 2012.
"More students have to take out loans or forego college," chimed in Alana Hartley, class of 2014.
Allison Kerry, another senior, added, "My generation is graduating with student debt levels at an unprecedented level."
Only two Republicans at the debate had a chance to answer the students' concerns. Texas Rep. Ron Paul suggested that the federal government should simply do away with student loans. Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich offered a more conventional response: The issue was simply one of personal responsibility that didn't have much to do with the banks.
Calling the current student loan program an "absurdity," Gingrich said he supports forcing more students to take part in work-study programs. It would be a "culture shock for the students of America to learn we actually expect them to go to class, study, get out quickly, charge as little as possible, and emerge debt free by doing the right things for four years," he said.
But Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College who has researched student loan debt for the College Board, an association of higher education organizations, argued that the matter was one of more than simple personal responsibility.
"It's clear that students benefit from their education, so they should contribute, but there are also social benefits," Baum noted. "If we don't support them, then we're going to discourage students in the future from taking this risk that's actually very beneficial to society."
While she agreed with Gingrich that "students should borrow cautiously," Baum also said that "there's a lot of uncertainty" in college. "If you train for an occupation and then suddenly all the jobs in that occupation go overseas, then it's not going to pay off."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads in polls of Michigan GOP voters and finishes as a frontrunner nationally, has no specific plan to address the problem of student loans, according to his policy director, Lanhee Chen.
"The first thing we've got to do is really get this economy on track, create the jobs that these recent graduates need, so they have the income to support these loan obligations. And that's really where Mitt would focus his time," said Chen, speaking in the media "spin room" after the debate.
Baum said growing the economy would be "great" -- but hardly a solution for every student. No matter what condition the economy is in, some will find themselves in bad repayment positions through no fault of their own. Tying repayments to income, a practice President Obama has proposed expanding, would be a good solution for them, she said.
College is "a risky investment," Baum added. "And it pays off well for most people, but it doesn't pay off for everyone. And that's frequently but not always out of the control of the individual."
As for the students of Oakland University themselves, their thoughts on the candidates' responses were mixed.
Standing outside the debate with a group of Occupy Oakland University protesters, Oskar Horyd, a freshman from Troy, Mich., said none of the candidates have addressed his concerns. Already $5,000 in debt in his first semester, Horyd said the candidates were simply ignoring the problem.
Hartley, one of the students featured in the CNBC video, said she was more likely to vote for Gingrich after his answer and his overall performance. She plans to graduate from college debt-free because of a scholarship, she said, and thought Gingrich's "answer to the student loan question showed that he has a good work ethic and wants to instill this in students as well."
But Maxwell Van Raaphorst, a senior majoring in biochemistry who also spoke in the video, was unimpressed.
"None of the candidates won my vote last night," he said afterward. Doing away with student loans "would only allow the elite and rich to attend and create a nation of uneducated and unskilled workers."
As for the odd-on choice of pundits, Van Raaphorst said, "I would hope that Romney seriously considers some other options in addition to just simply growing the economy."
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