It doesn't take a political scientist to see that much like the 2008 race, where Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Obama: Biden made 'right decision' on Afghanistan Biden spoke to Bush, Obama ahead of Afghanistan troop withdrawal MORE came out of nowhere to snatch early primary victories from Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Republican legislators target private sector election grants How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Briahna Joy Gray: IRS needs proper enforcement mechanisms to tax wealthy Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  MORE (I-Vt.) threatens to do the same.  The same sort of genuine, grassroots energy clearly is on Bernie's side at this point, as it was for Obama eight years ago. But there is a difference in that Bernie appears to have locked up New Hampshire- a state that gave Hillary's campaign new legs in that election. This does not bode well for Clinton.  She needs to do something to shake the "in-bed-with-the-banks" stigma that has dogged her, if she wants to have any chance.  The student loan issue offers that ground, and she is in a unique position to seize it. Here's why:

One glaring deficiency among all the Democratic candidates is their higher education plans.  The candidates, primarily, are promising all manner of tuition-free, or free public college.  While this is great for future voters, it does nothing for the 44 million current voters who are already saddled with close to $1.4 trillion in student loan debt.  It is clear that the candidates have been taking advice from out-of-touch, beltway insiders who are shilling for the lending system rather than fighting for the citizens.


The candidates overlook these voters at their huge peril. The Institute for Higher Education Policy found that of all the people leaving school in 2005 with student loans, a whopping 63 percent were unable to repay their loans as of 2010 (they were either delinquent, defaulted, in deferment, or in hardship forbearance).  If this group is any indicator- and they are- it is very safe to say that the majority of student loan borrowers- upwards of 27 million voters- are very, very concerned with this issue.

What the Democratic candidates are proposing for people already out of school are refinancing plans that would lower the interest rate of student loans somewhat, and repayment programs that promise loan forgiveness after 10-20 years.  The refinancing plans, while they might lower  interest rates by a few percent in today's low prime-rate/LIBOR environment, even these modest savings will be diluted as interest rates rise.  Recent refinancing legislation from democrats in congress, in fact, looks more like a boon for the banks than anything that will actually help borrowers.

The various repayment programs being touted by the democrats, similarly, look good on paper and attractive to future voters, but those who are out of school and have tried using these programs now realize that they are more like anchors dressed up like life jackets.  The Department of Education, which books some $50 Billion in profits each year from the lending program- and has no interest or intentions of forgiving anyone's loans- has already booted over half of the people signing up for these programs out- leaving them far deeper in debt than when they entered.  This is the same Department of Education that actually profits on defaults, and fights tooth-and-nail to keep bankruptcy protections away from student loans.

And it isn't really the interest rates or repayment schedules that are hurting borrowers in the first place. It's the sticker price of college, and the fact that in the absence of standard consumer protections like bankruptcy, statutes of limitations, and in the presence of a mafia-esque collection regime, the borrowers are being served up "like turkeys at the Thanksgiving dinner," in the words of Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenForgiving K in school loans would free 36 million student borrowers from debt: data IRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting trillion Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  MORE (D-Mass.).  Make no mistake, the removal of core consumer protections is what has enabled this predatory, hyper-inflationary lending system, and the citizens are being crushed by it. 

By fighting for the return of standard bankruptcy protections to student loans- at a minimum- Hillary would be affirming to the citizens that she actually is on their side, and willing to stand up to both the banks, and to big, bad government-  something that all the voters are desperate to see.  She would also be in keeping with her past work in the Senate, where she introduced legislation that would have done just that.  Returning bankruptcy protections would immediately compel more judicious lending, good-faith administration, and would return meaningful oversight to the system.  The schools would be pressured to reduce their prices and increase the quality of the educations they provide- something that has gone missing for years under the current, bad-faith system.

Interestingly, it turns out that when 11 USC 523(a)(8)- the section of federal code that strips standard bankruptcy protections from student loans-  is repealed, and student loans are again treated the same as all other loans in bankruptcy court, the "cost" will be nominal.  Mark Huelsman recently estimated that only about $2.5 billion will be discharged in bankruptcy each year due to this change.  I estimate it will be closer to double, or even triple that, but this is still a tiny drop in the trillion-dollar student loan bucket.

People will respond to a campaign pledge to restore bankruptcy protections to student loans in a big way.  While debt is a private and complicated phenomenon not easily understood through even the most sophisticated polling data analysis, trust that for the 27 million people living under the constant stress of predatory, government sponsored student loan debt, such a pledge from any of the candidates would be palpable. It would activate millions, and endear them to whichever candidate makes such a commitment. 

The clock is ticking. If Clinton waits until after New Hampshire to do this, it may be well too late.  Frankly, she could and should have done this months ago, but there is still time.

Collinge is founder of StudentLoanJustice.Org, and author of The Student Loan Scam (Beacon Press).