Bill Clinton: Want more entrepreneurs? Fix the student debt crisis

Chop down that student debt,
Chop down that student debt,
Image: Courtesy Clinton Foundation
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An emerging theme at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America meeting is entrepreneurship—specifically, the idea that more of it would be good for the US, but it still appears to be reserved for upper middle-class white men. So how to encourage women, minorities, and underprivileged youth to take the startup route? And what roadblocks do they face?

One answer to the first question: universities, which have become natural breeding grounds for businesses. (Facebook and Snapchat may be the most famous examples, but there are hundreds more.) As Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson said, during a panel discussion with former US president Bill Clinton, many college and university engineering departments are de facto “manufacturing innovation institutes.” RPI even has a dedicated “inventor’s studio” for undergraduates.

College coursework can lead to the birth of a business even without a founder’s particular ambition or confidence. Speaking on another panel at CGI America this morning, Veronika Scott, who founded a nonprofit that hires homeless women to sew sleeping bag coats, said this is exactly what happened to her. “I didn’t think I was starting a business,” Scott said, of her idea for the dual-purpose garment: “To me it was a class project.”

But for all the innovation-nurturing that institutions of higher learning do, they’re also the source of a massive drag on graduates and the economy. As Clinton and Jackson agreed, speaking on stage together, you can’t talk about universities fostering entrepreneurship and America’s economic future without talking about the student loan debt. That’s the roadblock holding back would-be entrepreneurs of all stripes.

Student loan debt in the US amounts to more than $1.2 trillion, and the exact figure grows by $2,726.27 every second. Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s college students will carry that debt for years after receiving their degrees, and it hamstrings their decisions about housing, jobs, and even marriage. Fix the student debt crisis, some experts say, and solutions to America’s other economic problems will fall into place.

Jackson thinks a viable fix would include loan forgiveness as a reward for young people who start businesses, describing such a policy as a “rejuvenated” version of existing loan forgiveness for public service. It would be “a progressive kind of approach that forgives a portion of the loan.” Rewarding individuals for contributions to the private sector isn’t unprecedented, said Jackson, referring to the current EB-5 immigrant investor program, which sets aside visas for immigrants who spend $500,000 or create 10 jobs in a region.

Clinton said his main gripe with the current system is the inability to refinance student loans. “A college loan is the only loan you cannot refinance, which I think is insane.” (Clinton avoided any explicit nods to his wife’s presidential campaign, a key piece of which is a proposal for cutting down on student debt.)

Student loans should be treated like home mortgages, said Clinton, adding, “Your education is more of a lifetime asset than any home you’ll ever own.”

Reducing the amount of loans students need to begin with is another approach. ”A lot of our issues exist because our great public universities don’t get the support they deserve,” said Jackson. Clinton said he agreed. Furthermore, he said, “we need to re-dignify skills training in this country. It’s absolutely true that not everyone needs a college degree.”