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Hillary Clinton’s student debt video misses the biggest problem with paying for college

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Hillary Clinton's campaign has released a new video to promote her college affordability plan. It's a poignant summary of how excessive student debt can weigh down young people's lives.

But the people featured — who have unusually high levels of debt, sky-high interest rates, or both — are outliers, and they're not necessarily the people Clinton's plan would do the most to help.

The video includes four young adults who mention specific numbers in connection with their own student debt. Their stories are scary. But, thankfully, they're not typical.

Here are the people the video features, and how their situations compare with that of average student loan borrowers:

  • Madison, who has two student loans with an interest rate of 9 percent. (The interest rate on federal student loans, which are far more common than more expensive loans made through private banks, hasn't been as high as 9 percent since 2000.)
  • Shamit, whose total cost of college was more than $64,000 per year. (The price an average family paid for a year at a four-year public college, after financial aid was taken into account, was about $13,000, according to the College Board; at a four-year private college, it was slightly under $24,000.)
  • Chiara, who has nearly $150,000 in student loans. (Six-figure loan debt is increasing, but it's still incredibly rare: Fewer than 4 percent of people with student loans have that much debt, according to the New York Fed.)
  • Justin, who spends 27 percent of his monthly income on debt repayment for both undergraduate and graduate school. (The typical household spends 4 percent of its income on student loan payments, according to the Brookings Institution.)

Clinton's big centerpiece idea — that students should be able to attend a public college without needing to take out loans to pay tuition — probably wouldn't have solved these problems. It doesn't stop students from choosing to attend a more expensive private college (Shamit) or taking on debt for graduate school (Chiara and Justin).

That's not to say Clinton has no proposals to help these people. Borrowers with high debt or high interest rates would be able to refinance and lower their monthly payments. And Clinton wants to change how students pay back their loans so that payments don't take up too much discretionary income.

Still, the people who struggle the most with student debt are those who take out student loans but don't end up graduating. Clinton's plan is aimed at addressing this, too; the campaign has mentioned holding colleges accountable for their graduation rates and making community college tuition free, both of which could help fewer people fall into that trap.

But the video illustrates that the most resonant political arguments about student loans often focus on outliers. Their stories strike a chord with college graduates. But they don't illustrate the biggest problems with student debt.

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