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For Young Voters, Crushing Student Debt Is Front And Center

The economy is always a key issue in presidential campaigns.

But whose economy are we talking about? Many millennial voters are underemployed and crushed under thousands of dollars of student debt.

And perhaps nowhere is the problem more acute than in New Hampshire.

Seventy-six percent of the class of 2013 had loans. On average, each New Hampshire student was carrying $32,795 of debt, according to The Project on Student Debt. It's the nation's biggest student loan debt burden.

And it undoubtedly plays a role in how young New Hampshire voters feel about the 2016 election.

$44,000 in loans for public school

Megan Brabec, 24, graduated from college a couple of years ago. She double-majored in political science and international affairs, and she minored in women's studies and Spanish.

But even with those concentrations, it's been hard to find a full-time gig.

These days, Brabec works a mish-mash of part-time jobs — all at her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire. Her current office is across the street from her old dorm.

"Technically, through the university's eyes, it's three separate part-time jobs, so I don't qualify for benefits or anything like that," she said as she walked through campus.

Brabec makes about $29,000 a year. But she says there's a backstory to her income.

"My parents and I took out $44,000 to pay for UNH," she explained. Her parents are helping pay back most of it. She has $12,000 in her own name.

And what bothers Brabec is that she went to the University of New Hampshire because she thought it was the cheaper, in-state option. "We get very little state funding, but we're technically a state school," she said.

In fact, an analysis from the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that New Hampshire state colleges receive the smallest amount of public funding per pupil in the country.

"But the tuition is higher. ... And the tuition is higher because, you know, without broad-based taxes, without a sales tax, without an income tax, the state just doesn't have a lot of resources," explained Tom Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council, a consortium of public and private colleges in the state.

And that means for a public school, the University of New Hampshire has one of the highest in-state tuition levels in the nation.

'Extremely underemployed' with bills on top of debt

That financial mix forces students to take out huge loans. But, for Brabec, the economic woes of her generation are more complicated.

"I don't think the economic situation of young people is purely because of student loans," she said. "I think it's because young people are now extremely underemployed, and trying to pay regular bills, plus very high student loans on lower incomes than our parents had at our age."

Brabec commutes about 45 minutes to work for her three jobs. She lives in Concord, on a quiet street with waist-high sunflowers in the front yard.

She splits the rent, $925 a month, with her boyfriend, Dan Tothill, who graduated from the University of New Hampshire School of Law in 2014.

And, since then, Tothill's been applying for a lot of jobs.

"The jobs that I've been able to find that are law jobs, one was only offering $10 an hour," he said.

He hasn't found a legal job, but, for now, he's found a full-time job with an insurance company. It's not exactly what he had hoped, but he has $132,000 of students loans he needs to pay off.

"It feels terrifying to have that number looming over my head that's not dischargable in any sort of way," said Tothill, on a break from his second job, a part-time security guard at the law school.

In retrospect, Tothill says going to law school felt like buying a lottery ticket — just a big gamble with no guaranteed return on investment.

"I hope that I can look back on myself in 10 years, like 'Oh, I was so silly to be worrying about that. Things worked out fine.' But, at this point, it doesn't feel that way at all," he said.

Where Tothill is more introspective, Brabec is chatty and candid. She says if they both didn't have so much debt, they would probably make different professional and personal decisions.

"Sorry, Dan, to scare you right now, but I think that we would be more on our way to getting married," Brabec said. "But, it's important to me to have all the people I love at my wedding, and I know that right now if I were to try to have a wedding, it would be very small."

How their finances affect their political views

Brabec pulls some cheese out the fridge to make tortellini salad. She always cooks dinner at home to save money.

As she mixes the salad, the conversation turns to politics. For Brabec, it's hard to divorce student loans from the presidential campaign. Brabec says her personal economy definitely affects her political opinions.

"It does really frustrate me when I hear candidates talk about, 'Oh, well, you should have majored in something else.' I'm like I went to school with two majors and two minors, don't tell me that I didn't work hard enough or didn't do something that was hard enough because I worked really hard, I got a really good GPA," she said.

Brabec is a devout Democrat. But she's not sure if she's a faithful follower of the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

"A few months ago, I would have said, 'I'm voting for Hillary, no question," Brabec said. "But Bernie Sanders has been getting a lot of recognition from young people."

Brabec and Tothill say most of their friends are in the Sanders camp. And Tothill says he understands why.

"I've kind of felt pulled along in the trend of Bernie Sanders, in that I thought of him as too far left, but then the more I've looked at what he has to say, the more it's connected I guess with me," he said.

Brabec is more conflicted. She would love to see a woman in the Oval Office. "I do have a little bit of an issue voting for another old white man to run our country. I would really love to see someone who looks like me hanging on the walls of any of our buildings," said Brabec. "But, I don't think that is reason alone to vote for someone."

Her boyfriend thinks Sanders would be better on tackling the wealth gap. And he sees student loans as a part of the economic inequality equation.

"I think it's disingenuous for schools to be able to just pump out degrees without having any sort of skin in the game," Tothill said.

He wants to hear a solution that balances the risks and rewards of going to college more fairly. He saw Sanders last year at a roundtable on student loans and was impressed. He's not sure the Vermont senator's idea of free public college is the right answer, but he's excited by the conversation, and thinks it could spark some constructive debate.

"There's other countries that have been able to solve this problem and figure it out," Tothill said. "That's what our country was kind of founded on, was looking around to what worked in other countries, and bringing it back and coming up with our own sort of solution based on that."

Tothill and Brabec say whatever political solution might be created is probably going to be too late for them. They just hope that one day, if they do get married and have kids, a college education at a public university is more affordable.

Copyright 2020 WBUR. To see more, visit .

Asma Khalid is a political correspondent for NPR who co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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