ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Americans carry $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, and many of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have plans to address that problem. As New Hampshire voters get ready to cast their ballots tomorrow, I sat down with three women who have different perspectives on the issue to hear how their experience with debt is shaping their view of the primary race.
MEGHAN MOODY: Hi, Sarah (ph). I'm Meghan (ph).
SARAH GROLEAU: Hi there.
JESSE WRIGHT: Hey, I'm Jesse (ph).
GROLEAU: Hi there. I'm Sarah.
MOODY: Just from reading pins on our jackets, we have three different opinions about who we're going to vote for.
SHAPIRO: That's Meghan Moody (ph) with Jesse Wright (ph) and Sarah Groleau (ph). We're at a restaurant called May Kelly's Cottage in the town of North Conway. It's an Irish pub, walls covered in antiques and bric-a-brac overlooking a river and mountains. Jesse's 30, and she's been a waitress here for years.
WRIGHT: I was in high school when I first started here and have never dropped that second job. It's been such a blessing to be able to count on it.
SHAPIRO: She has a master's degree and a job at a conservation nonprofit. But without a second job, she wouldn't make enough to pay down her loans. Each month, her student loan payment costs more than her mortgage. And in addition to those two jobs, Jesse started a group that gives grants to young people to help pay down their student debt and keep them living in this rural community.
North Conway, N.H., is halfway up the border with Maine. It's a place where people go skiing on their lunch break.
MOODY: How lucky are we to live here and get to do that and come in a little early or stay a little late, get some vitamin D and have some social energy?
SHAPIRO: Meghan got a $2,000 grant from Jesse's organization to help with her debt, but Meghan does not have a college degree. Partway through her junior year at Elmira College in upstate New York, her grandfather died. He was the cosigner on her student loan. And when tuition was due, she didn't have any money to pay for it.
MOODY: I got a call from my loan company saying that I was no longer eligible for the loan that they awarded me and that I had to figure out how to pay $18,000 by December 15 or something. And so I just came home. And I missed one of those payments, and it went to collections. You know, borrowing $20,000 a year doesn't sound like that much when you feel like you can pay it off. But the second you make a mistake, which I did and I recognize, you dig yourself into a really, really deep hole.
SHAPIRO: By the time she's done, she says she's going to wind up paying about $90,000, including interest, for 2 1/2 years of school - no degree. She's 28 years old, and this experience has shaped almost every aspect of her life in the last decade.
MOODY: My boyfriend and I have been together for 2 1/2 years, and he bought our home last year instead of us buying our home 'cause emotionally, we wanted to buy the home together. But in no way did I want my student debt - if I defaulted again - to affect our whole future.
SHAPIRO: This all sounds familiar to the third woman at our table.
GROLEAU: I get a lot of calls about, I can't handle my student loans; I can't buy a house; I can't do this.
SHAPIRO: Sarah Groleau got a full ride to her college. Now she's 39 and owns a financial planning practice in nearby Freedom, N.H.
GROLEAU: Being a 17-year-old deciding how to go to college and how to pay for it, the idea of borrowing $3,000 a semester or borrowing $30,000 a semester is the same number in their head when they've had no experience with how debt works.
WRIGHT: You sign on the same line for both, right?
GROLEAU: It's the same line. It's - and the concept of paying it off is just not a real number. Anything with that many zeros, you haven't really dealt with. It makes it a really unclear financial decision, and the rules change.
SHAPIRO: So a question that I have for all three of you is, where do you draw the line between, young people don't have the knowledge they need to make good decisions, and therefore, they should not be held responsible for these decisions - and on the other hand, well, you signed on the dotted line, and if you didn't know what you were doing, that's no one's fault but your own?
GROLEAU: This is Sarah. I can comment. It's a thing I struggle with. You know, I think the root of the problem is more nuanced. But we also have to recognize there's some ownership there, right? Like, there's some part of it where someone is signing on those dotted lines. But we also need to make sure we're making that information accessible, right? So do you know what rights you have as a consumer of these loans? There's a lot we need to hold elected officials and governments responsible for, especially the federal programs.
SHAPIRO: How do you both feel about this question?
WRIGHT: I think for me, it's, where's the other option? Right now what we're doing is saying, yes, you're 18. And everybody around you is telling you, go to the best school that you possibly can get into because that's the best for your future. When we bring to the table an option that is public education past grade 12, that's when we can say, here is the best thing you can do for your financial future - is go to higher education past grade 12 that is not going to burden you in the future.
SHAPIRO: How do you feel about this, Meghan?
MOODY: It's a really excellent question because I don't think that there's, like, a black-and-white answer. Like, I'm going to feel a lot of pride when I pay off my own loans because I signed for them. But how would getting to coach field hockey again instead of having a second job allow me to give back to the community that gave me so much?
SHAPIRO: It's funny. I hear you describing these loans almost like handcuffs. But I also hear that it's really important to you to break the handcuffs yourself - that you, like - you don't want somebody to come along with a key...
MOODY: I don't need no - yeah.
GROLEAU: Welcome to New Hampshire.
GROLEAU: We're going to do it ourself.
SHAPIRO: What do you say to people who didn't take out loans and will now say, why should your debt be paid off when I made the decision not to go into debt in the first place?
WRIGHT: This is Jesse. This is an economic issue that is beyond one person's personal debt. It's not just, I don't drive on that road, so I'm not going to pay for it. It's this idea that we're contributing to our community.
SHAPIRO: The different experiences these women have had lead them to support three different candidates. The pin on Meghan's coat says Bernie. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says if he's elected, he will cancel all outstanding student loan debt.
MOODY: I was like, I've been screaming this at the top of my lungs forever. I'm drowning, and you hear me.
SHAPIRO: Sarah, the financial adviser, says she was a fan of Sanders four years ago. But this time, she's wearing a pin for former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
GROLEAU: The thing I like about Pete's platform is how much emphasis is on the affordability of college and making, you know, tech schools and other forms of secondary education a priority because I think loan forgiveness is more of a - it's addressing a symptom of the overall problem of the cost of higher education. And there is that visceral reaction to student loan forgiveness. There's a lot of people in our electorate who hate that idea for whatever reason.
MOODY: What happens, then, for this whole generation? Like, is it just a hiccup and we, like, don't think about them and we're all kind of like...
GROLEAU: No, 'cause student loan forgiveness is still part of his platform. It's different than Bernie's. Absolutely. But I like that there's multiple options. So it's looking at career options, student loan refinancing options. That's a big one that I think is important. You know...
MOODY: A lot of us aren't available to that anymore because we've made a mistake and...
GROLEAU: Right, but that's what I think is important to fix.
SHAPIRO: And then there's Jesse, who says Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's tiered approach to student debt appeals to her.
WRIGHT: Her approach is to level out debt forgiveness to the amount of income that you're making so that we're not giving Tom Steyer's kids debt forgiveness. I think that's important.
SHAPIRO: Tom Steyer, the billionaire presidential candidate. In the divide on this issue, there are echoes of the larger split within the Democratic Party right now. Meghan, the Sanders supporter, says a candidate needs to pursue big, ambitious goals to accomplish anything in Washington today.
MOODY: The way that our political climate is, something extreme has to happen for something small to result.
SHAPIRO: And Sarah, the Buttigieg supporter, thinks a candidate needs to win over more than just Democrats.
GROLEAU: I think that's an opportunity to really have respectful conversation, and I think that there is hope that somewhere we can get Senate to work together on something as important as the student loan crisis.
SHAPIRO: While the women disagree on the best approach to this problem, they agree that the candidates are talking about it more than ever before. And they all believe that's a good thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.