Canceling student debt is a women’s issue — we hold two-thirds of the burden

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News this week that lawmakers are pressuring the administration to release a promised memo outlining his authority to cancel student debt is encouraging to many young people, especially women, who don’t see their actions as mattering in politics. 

While many young women may not think of themselves as political, there’s one subject that unites them. It’s student loan debt. I am hopeful that more people will want to discuss this issue as part of a generational shift in politics. It’s time for young people to broaden the conversation about this issue, including on social media with #VentYourDebt. 

How bold would it be if this administration canceled student debt? I ask because we need big, bold, audacious ideas to change the political landscape for young women. Student loan debt is a sure-fire way to ignite their political interest.

I lead an organization readying a generation of young women for political office. I’m still paying off my student loans and I often meet women in a similar position. When I meet young women who don’t see politics as relevant to them, I ask them about their debt. It starts a constructive conversation about how they need to be in power to change things.  

One of the things I hear most often from young women who want a political career is “I want to go to law school.” It is not always a bad idea, but it also comes with a preconceived notion of what a political leader looks like. It is also a guaranteed way to take on a hefty student debt load. And there are other ways to learn how to lead, and to gather the experience you need to win an election. 

The news that loan servicer Navient agreed to cancel $1.7 billion in student loans is a drop in the ocean. The nation’s student loan ledger now totals more than $1.7 trillion. Women hold about two-thirds of that debt. While college education costs went up 103 percent since 1987, median income rose by 14 percent in the same time. 

recent study showed women hold an average of $31,276 in student debt. That leaves a monthly payment of about $307 the year after graduation. Women graduating with a bachelor’s degree expect to earn $35,338 on average. That’s 20 percent less than men. It makes meeting the loan obligation challenging. It’s harder than ever with inflation pushing up the cost of living. 

We’re holding women back from reaching their full potential. This is a bipartisan issue. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill on student loans last year. It’s no coincidence that she is a young woman. And young women are growing tired of waiting for Congress, which is majority male, to act on this issue.

Women appear more likely to work across the aisle to pass policies. They show more spirit of collaboration. They seem to get more policy written and passed than men do. If we want gender parity in elected office, we need women to win on both sides of the aisle. If we want to address student debt it seems we need them to win for us too. 

The cost of running for office makes it hard to run and win, though. Many city council campaigns raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. It costs millions of dollars to win a congressional seat. That’s why many young women choose to start out local. They run for a school board or a community board and then build their experience from there. It’s not all about running for office, either. They might gain experience working on somebody else’s campaign. They might work for a legislator. Or they might find their political power in other ways like by organizing in their community. But they are demonstrating more grit than I’ve seen in more than a decade of doing this work. They see the stakes. 

Meanwhile, Congress can expand Pell Grants for low-income students to reduce their debt. Legislators can increase funding for public colleges and universities. The Department of Education can help women enroll more in income-driven repayment options. Institutions can address both the academic and holistic financial needs of students. That includes childcare. It’s going to take a huge effort to solve the student debt crisis. But we all know it is worth it for women and for society at large.  

Sara Guillermo is CEO of IGNITE, America’s largest and most diverse organization for young women’s political leadership. 

Tags cancel student debt College Debt forgiveness Education Elise Stefanik Finance Higher education Sara Guillermo Student debt Student loans University

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