BUSINESS
10/17/2012 07:22 pm ET

Obama, Romney Gloss Over Trillion-Dollar Student Loan Debt In Debate

It was the opening question in Tuesday night's long-awaited presidential debate sequel: A 20-year-old college student wanted to know how he would fare in the job market after graduation.

"What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?" asked first-time voter Jeremy Epstein.

The question has an added urgency in today's economy, now that student borrowers are graduating with an average of more than $25,000 in debt -- a 20 percent increase from five years before. Yet there was hardly any discussion of the nation's burgeoning student loan debt Tuesday night, as President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made only passing references to the rising costs of college and the increased burdens on graduates entering the workforce.

Both candidates largely focused on creating more jobs as a solution to the problem: for Romney, "I know what it takes to create good jobs again. I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve"; and for Obama, "The most important thing we can do is to make sure that we are creating jobs in this country, but not just jobs, good-paying jobs, ones that can support a family."

But with college costs increasing at a rate that consistently outpaces inflation, many graduates know that simply getting a job isn't enough to keep up with loan payments.

"It's an easy answer to say 'If we create jobs, obviously you'll have money and you can pay off your loans,'" said Kate Tromble, director of legislative affairs at the Education Trust. "But I think it's bigger than that. When you're talking about a trillion dollars in debt, you're talking about something more than just a poor economy."

Romney's comment Tuesday night about "50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work" wasn't completely accurate, but he was correct that a majority of college graduates are either unemployed or working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, according to an Associated Press analysis from earlier this year.

Research has shown that college degrees are worth the investment, leading to lifetime earnings increases that wouldn't otherwise occur. But with so many college graduates taking on more debt than in past generations, even well-paying jobs aren't always enough to keep pace.

Researchers say that the lack of specifics about college loan debt in Tuesday's debate reflect the complexity of the issue: Economic forces over the past 30 years have made bachelor's degrees a prerequisite to entering many areas of the workforce, yet the government is increasingly unable to help fund that added educational requirement. The result: it's handed off more and more of that responsibility to the students themselves.

"That's essentially what Obama and Romney are dealing with, because we don't have a clue of how we're going to pay for this," said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "And it's going to get worse for a long time before it gets better, unless something intervenes."

In previous generations, when public universities could handle the demand from students and fewer people sought degrees, student loan debt was far less common and much smaller. Government subsidies were largely able to foot the bill for students' tuition.

Student advocates say the issue isn't one that resonates with older voters, making it less likely to get much airtime.

"I think there is a generational gap, and I think that's part of the reason it's played off like 'Oh, you're in debt, don't worry about it. We got out of it,'" said Radhika Singh Miller, a program manager for educational debt relief at Equal Justice Works. "For us, it may be the number one issue, because for us it's the thing that's preventing us from buying a house, or it's the thing that's preventing us from moving out of our parents' house."

A report this summer from Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for 18 to 34-year-olds, explored how college graduates from 2004 looking to buy a home at the age of 30 will be unlikely to qualify for most mortgages even with just an average level of student loan debt. Couples who both have student loan debt will have an even more difficult time, the report found.

"This is a huge issue about life choices," said Tromble, of the Education Trust. "If we can't get a handle on this student issue, it's going to be the thing preventing our younger people from buying a house, from moving on to the next stage of life, from having a family. You can't become part of the middle class that we're saying we're trying to protect."

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