The student loan crisis affects 44 million Americans, and it turns out our elected politicians are among them, too. On Sept. 10, the House of Representatives gathered for a hearing to address the $1.5 trillion dollar debt crisis plaguing college graduates, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had some points to lodge. In fact, she didn't just want to talk about the crisis. To prove its seriousness, AOC paid off a student loan bill during a House hearing, which I have to say is a pretty mic-drop move.
In 2018, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at age 29, so it’s no surprise she has experience with the ever-increasing debt crisis affecting young Americans. She opened her remarks at the Sept. 10 hearing on student loans by getting straight to the point: “It’s been a long and hard hearing for anyone who has student loan debt.” And, while sitting at the House Financial Services Committee hearing for over three long hours, she apparently paid off one student loan of her own.
“I literally made a student loan payment while I was sitting here at this chair, and I looked at my balance, and it is 20,237.16,” she said. “I just made a payment that took me down to $19,000 so I feel really accomplished right now.” This makes Ocasio-Cortez one of 44.7 million borrowers who make up the second highest consumer debt category in the country, second only to mortgage loans, according to Forbes. With her current debt, she has about half the debt of an average new graduate: Forbes reported that the class of 2016 had an average of $37,172 to pay off.
Ocasio-Cortez went on to say that student loans “set people up to fail,” going against notions of personal responsibility made by opponents throughout the hearing. For instance, Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia made the point that even high-income families are also burdened by college tuition. Addressing comments previously made during the hearing by Seth Frotman, the executive director at the Student Borrower Protection Center, Loudermilk said, “You said "Students have to have a loan to go to college,” he said, adding that his children “actually worked for” college and graduated without any debt.
This is not the first time Ocasio-Cortez has invoked her own financial hardships to make a point about the average American. Her 2018 campaign focused largely on systemic issues of inequality and her personal experience working as a bartender. After her election, she made headlines for having under $7,000 in savings — like most millennials, per Vox — after her campaign took a financial toll on her funds.
In addition to the standard lawmakers, the hearing featured guest panelists, such as comedian Hasan Minhaj and Ashley Harrington, the senior counselor at the Center for Responsible Lending. Minhaj, writer and comedian, dedicated an entire episode of his Netflix series Patriot Act to student loan debt in February 2019.
Minhaj echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s statements and called out the government for not prioritizing students and education while bailing out big money. “We know the government is capable of stepping in during a financial crisis," he said. "Why can't we treat our student borrowers the way we treat our banks? Because 44 million Americans: that is too big to fail.”
Being so transparent to her fellow politicians, Ocasio-Cortez mirrored the concerns of so many who always have student loans in the back of their minds — no matter where they are. In an ideal world, no one would have to be writing checks while sitting in Congress. But personal narratives like those of herself and Minhaj are a great next step in bringing these issues to Congress. In the meantime, best of luck as she pays off the rest of those bills!