Debt, living costs among key issues for students at Sonoma State town hall

The country’s $1.3 trillion student loan debt was front and center Thursday when two congressmen, including North Coast Rep. Mike Thompson, visited SSU.|

The word “debt” loomed large in a literal way Thursday at Sonoma State University.

During the outset of a congressional town hall at the university’s student center, East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, told audience members they could text message a specific number with words describing the issues most important to them. Their answers would form a “word cloud” - in which the size of a word varies on how much it is used - projected on screens at either side of the stage.

The idea was to show what the four dozen students and other community members who attended were really concerned about. Their answers quickly became clear.

“Debt” was one of the first words to gain a large font size, in addition to “college” “environment” and “jobs.” As the event progressed, and other words were added to the cloud, “diversity,” “marijuana,” “legalization” and “loans” rose to prominence.

But debt remained at the forefront all along, and for good reason.

Federal student debt is now about $1.3 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Education, putting the issue front and center for millions of Americans. That burden only adds to the financial obstacles young people face when trying to navigate the incredibly high cost of living in the Bay Area and North Coast, attendees said Thursday.

“It hasn’t always been this way,” Swalwell said at one point. “That’s been the biggest challenge on this issue, is that a lot of people in generations above millennials say, ‘Well, why can’t you guys just work your way through school like we did?’ ... and the truth is, it’s really apples to oranges in the experience.”

College tuition, Swalwell said, had grown far costlier than “every other good and service that we consume.”

Swalwell drove the point home at other points when he asked how many in the crowd of about 50 thought they would ever be able to own a home, and few hands were raised. He called it a “pretty dispiriting response.”

Later in the event, when Swalwell asked how many expected their student loan debt to exceed $10,000, many more hands shot up. A lot of those remained when he increased the expectation to $25,000, $50,000 and $75,000.

Reforms suggested by Swallwell included allowing graduates to refinance their student debt, doubling the interest they are able to deduct annually on their taxes and lifting income requirements on who is eligible for those deductions. Swallwell also said those who “fall on hard times in bankruptcy” should be able to discharge their student debt.

The Sonoma State town hall was held as part of the Future Forum, a group of 18 young Democratic Congressional lawmakers focusing on issues that matter to the millennial generation. In addition to Swalwell, the town hall also featured North Coast Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and the discussion was moderated by Ricky Albanese, an executive with SSU’s student government.

Both congressmen made efforts to show how some of the afternoon’s themes were personal for them.

Swalwell, 35, told the audience at different points how his student debt is still nearly $100,000, and how he still rents a home in the area where he grew up. Thompson, 65, said his son who works in public service in Napa is considering buying a home in Placerville - about 100 miles away.

“That’s not good anyway you cut it,” Thompson said. “And I look at the young people who work in my office coming out of college with a six-digit student loan debt, and that’s crippling ... So it really stifles economic growth in our communities. It’s money that’s not going in and generating more money.”

Thompson voiced support for increasing grant funding for students’ educations, lowering the cost of a student loan and allowing those who work in areas such as law enforcement and education to be homeowners in the areas they serve.

At one point during the town hall, Mary Luros, Napa’s vice mayor, said she might not have gone to law school had she realized how much debt she would accrue. Separately, Sonoma State fourth-year student Patricia Ayala Macias, 21, said she was looking at applying to graduate school and was concerned about the steep costs necessary just to study and prepare for the required admissions tests.

Ayala Macias said after the meeting she would have preferred more detail on what actions the lawmakers might take moving forward.

“I felt their sympathy, but they didn’t really give me an opportunity to see, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to actually do about it,’?” she said.

Other issues covered in the town hall included increased funding for mental health services and the country’s military presence in Afghanistan.

Sonoma State political science professor David McCuan, who attended the forum, said Swalwell and Thompson’s Democratic party would have little power even if it picks up more House seats in November.

“It’s very difficult for the minority party, Democrats in this case, to get anything done,” McCuan said. “That’s one of the practical aspects.”

Nonetheless, McCuan said the town hall effectively showed how Thompson was “an increasingly important player across and throughout the Democratic bench,” the kind of legislator capable of bringing other key politicians to his home district.

McCuan said Swalwell represents a “new Democratic Party and a new wave,” one more attuned to the needs of millennials and at the forefront of generational change.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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