Student loan crisis: Politicians are struggling with staggering student loan debt, just like the rest of us

Florida Capitol. Credit: Colin Hackley.

Some influential politicians are saddled by staggering student loan debt — more than $200,000 in two cases and several others with college loan obligations larger than $100,000, the Florida Phoenix has found.

The full tab of college indebtedness adds up to $2.35 million for elected state House and Senate members plus the governor and Cabinet officials, based on disclosure forms that detail politicians’ assets and liabilities.

The data often go unnoticed, and not all residents would take time to read the disclosure forms. But the politicians’ student debt load creates a picture of massive student debt that crosses political party lines and changes people’s economic lives.

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

With voters going to the polls in advance of Election Day, student loan debt is on the radar, not only for lawmakers but also for students, kids out of college, and parents still shaving off their own debt.

Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve released data showing student loan debt at $1.676 trillion, up from about $1.3 trillion in 2015.

That figure is hard to imagine for regular folks, let alone politicians who can push for legislation to help reduce loan debt or keep people from defaulting.

Two South Florida Democrats in the Legislature, both attorneys, reported the highest college debt load in the disclosure forms — state House members Daniel Daley, at $243,671, and Nicholas Duran, at $205,198.

Those with lower debt amounts, roughly $80,00 and below, include Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, at $73,585; incoming GOP House Speaker Chris Sprowls, at $57,582; Republican State Sen. Manny Diaz, chair of the Senate Education Committee, at $49,225; and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, at $25,830.

“As someone who is still paying off student loans, I can tell you firsthand that anything we can do at the state or federal level to reduce the burden of student debt should be a major priority,” Commissioner Fried said.

“With an increasing share of jobs requiring a college degree, working families should not be forced to go into debt to pay for what has become almost essential for our country’s workforce. Taking on the issue of student debt can boost the U.S. economy, help us build progress on racial inequalities, as we know that Black and Latino students are disproportionately impacted, and address a problem which has hindered the opportunity of younger generations.”

No rainy-day fund

In Duran’s case, he took out loans to pay for law school.

State Rep. Nicholas Duran. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

“It is a lot of debt — $1,500 bucks a month,” Duran said. However, “I am lucky. The job I have has been a stable job,” said Duran, who is executive director at a nonprofit Florida association.

He said he’s able to pay his bills, though he acknowledged that he has been in a situation when he had to pay his student loans late.

He and his family currently rent a house. And with his steep student loan debt, “It doesn’t allow to prepare for a rainy-day fund,” Duran said.

Duran was the original sponsor of legislation that Gov. DeSantis signed this summer. Called “Keep our Graduates Working Act of 2020,” the legislation allows Floridians who graduate from an accredited college or university to retain state licenses and stay in the workforce while paying off student loans.

The licenses include a “professional license, certificate, registration, or permit granted by the applicable state authority.”  Duran said that would include a license to practice law.

The legislation says a state authority “may not deny a license, refuse to renew a license, or suspend or revoke a license that it has issued to a person who is in default on or delinquent in the payment of his or her student loans solely on the basis of such default or delinquency.”

The legislative analysis on the measure showed the reality of Florida’s situation: The rise in student loan debt led to an increase in the number of people who are defaulting on their loans.

“In 2018, 41,013 borrowers who attended Florida schools ranging from universities to trade schools had defaulted on their federal student loans,” the analysis stated.

As to non-politicians, it’s also a struggle.

Allison Parish earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Florida State University and a minor in special education. She was fortunate to get through the financial situation for undergraduate studies, but she took out loans of at least $28,000 for a master’s program.

Allison Parish

She graduated in 1998 with the master’s degree and she’s still paying off her student loans, with about $5,300 remaining. She’s a chief program officer for a statewide nonprofit.

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Parish said, although challenges lie ahead. Her husband also has student loans and her two young boys are expected to go college.

“How do we start saving, putting away money for their college, when we haven’t even paid off ours?” Parish asked. She is doing a prepaid tuition plan for the kids but can’t afford the amount for a four-year school.

“I don’t think that incomes are keeping up with costs. So, our dollar doesn’t go as far as it did for our parents. And I’m sure that it will continue to get worse. … The cost of college I think has gone up exponentially,” Parish said.

As for her kids, “Hopefully they’ll do well enough to get a scholarship, to help out.”

Heraldyne Desravines is a registered nurse in South Florida, working two jobs to help pay her student loans, which add up to about $60,000, she said. She wants to be a nurse practitioner, she added, but that would involve getting more loans.

She is renting now, but would love to own a home.

“You feel like you can never, ever catch up. Where is the American dream for us?” Desravines said.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Credit: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

She is from Haiti and is an American citizen able to vote. She said she voted for former vice president Joe Biden because she believes in his plan for some loan forgiveness and free college tuition, among other measures.

An analysis by The Wall Street Journal of the presidential candidates shows that the Trump administration is worried about excessive debt and favors some debt forgiveness.

President Donald Trump, in October 2019. Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In 2019, Trump said, “Student loan debt. I’m going to work to fix it … because it’s outrageous what’s happening. You’re not given that fair start.”

Lawmaker student loan debt

The 32 lawmakers with reported student loan debt represent about 20 percent of the members of the Legislature as well as governor and Cabinet officials. Thirteen are Republicans and 19 are Democrats, indicating that the student loan crisis is essentially nonpartisan.

The lawmakers who reported student loan debt above $100,000 all were state House members and only two were Republicans. Those GOP lawmakers are Anthony Sabatini, with $138,403, and Daniel Perez, at $123,388.

The others in that group were House Democrats: Kionne McGhee, at $195,000; Amy Mercado, at $187,789; Al Jacquet, at $171,395; Susan Valdes, at $131,145; Anika Omphroy, at $117,362; and Jennifer Webb, $111,000.

The Phoenix used figures on student loan debt if they were specifically labeled as such, including information from major student loan servicing companies. The public information is based on assets and liabilities and net worth as of Dec. 31, 2019, although politicians usually submitted the forms around June of 2020. The forms are called “Full and Public Disclosure of Financial Interests.”

Those who want to see the data can go on a state webpage that provides a lookup for financial disclosures by public officials.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.