This 34-Year-Old Congressman Wants To Help You With Your Student Loans

Photo: Bill Clark/Getty Images.
There are about 75.3 million millennials in this country — we're on our way to becoming the biggest living generation. But, we’re way under-represented in Congress. In fact, the average age of a representative is 57. Which might be part of the reason why so many of us feel a little alienated by government. We set out to talk with the younger members of Congress, to see what they see as the biggest issues facing us — young Americans. This spring, we met one of them: Representative Eric Swalwell of California. He's 34, a Democrat, and serving his second term for California’s 15th district. Swalwell spoke to us about one of the major problems facing 2015 graduates: student loan debt — why it’s a crisis, how we can fix it, and what advice he’d give to students today.
You’ve made student loans your central issue. Why do you think they’re so crucial?
“For one, it’s a bit personal; I have nearly $100,000 in student loan debt. But, beyond that, I’ve also talked with so many people across the country and seen that loans are really holding young people back in every major decision they’re making. Whether it’s when to start a family, whether they can afford to buy their first house, or...leaving your job and going out and starting your own business. This debt is weighing down an entire generation. “Right now, 40 million young people have about 1.3 trillion dollars in student debt. That could easily create an economic crisis for an entire generation.” How’d you end up with all that debt?
“My parents’ dream for me, when I was growing up, was for me was to be the first in the family to go to college. Soccer was the path that we saw was the surest way to get me to college, because they weren’t going to have the means to pay tuition. “So, I worked hard, earned a soccer scholarship, went and played Division I at a little school in North Carolina called Campbell University. After two years, I got injured. I could have either nursed the injury and tried to recover for a year, or I could get a little more serious about academics. So, I took an internship on Capitol Hill between my sophomore and junior year, fell in love with public service, and transferred to the University of Maryland, about eight miles from downtown Washington. I got to continue working on the Hill, but also paid tuition as an out-of-state student. Then, I stayed here and attended the University of Maryland Law School, and then ultimately went back home.”

I don't think anyone in our generation is asking for special treatment.

And now you’re a Congressman. It seems like, in this instance, even though you have some debt, the system worked?
“There’s no question that the more student loan aid that’s out there, the more individuals have access to college. When I got injured, I had to take out student loans to finish my last two years. I would not have been able to do that without federal student loans. I’m certainly not asking for any special treatment — I don’t think anyone in our generation is. “I think what people in our generation want is a student loan program that lends the money necessary to anyone who’s qualified, so they can receive a higher education — and do it without price-gouging the tuition, or having the government make money on the interest rates.” At an event in New York earlier this year, where you spoke, there was a stat quoted — that, 20 years from now, more than half of jobs will be for things that we don’t even have names for yet.
“That stat shows how quickly we’re evolving and growing. Given that, I think it’s probably a little more risky now to specialize than it is to have a broad science-and-math degree. Members of our generation — much more so than our parents' — are likely to hold a number of jobs over our lifetime, because the economy is changing so fast." You just spent a couple weeks meeting with millennials at “Happy Hour” events around the States — what were your takeaways?
"Our generation is made up of very resilient, aspirational individuals who believe that if they have a fair shot at making it in this economy, they’ll seize the opportunity. Right now, there are many barriers that stand in the way.

What would you do if you had a little bit more money every month that wasn’t being spent on student loans?

One of those is student loan debt. That’s a pressing issue that Congress can act on and make an immediate difference. We can return so much money to our economy if we reform the way that these 40 million individuals have to pay back their student loans. It will relieve the anxiety they personally have, but more importantly, it’ll give them more purchasing power for whatever it is — to buy a house, to invest in their company, to buy a car. We asked every group that we visited: What would you do if you had a little bit more money every month that wasn’t being spent on student loans? Almost across the board it was either 'buy a house' or 'invest in my business.'" What do we need to do to fix it the student loan crisis, then?
“First, we have to put a lot of pressure on higher education institutions across the country to really treat higher education as a public good, and keep tuition low. “Second, I don’t think the federal government should make a single penny in interest on any of the money it loans to students. And, we immediately allow them to refinance that student loan debt. Right now, you can refinance your home, you can refinance your auto loan; you can’t refinance your student loan debt. I’ve supported a bill, called the Student Loan Refinancing Act, that would allow students to do that. “Finally, we need to allow student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy cases. If people get themselves in an unfortunate situation, student debt should not be an anchor that holds them down for the rest of their life.”

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