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When Elizabeth Warren came to Washington — not the first time, as a bankruptcy expert, or the second time, to oversee the bank bailout during the Great Recession — but the third time, when she was elected to the United States Senate, she wanted to solve a growing problem: student debt.
During her campaign, against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Warren had talked a lot about student loan debt and making college more affordable. She had run television ads about it, saying young people were “left drowning in debt to get an education.” So, as her Senate office began to staff up, the boss wanted to roll out a policy proposal to bring down the cost of student loans. Her staff did what they always did when working for Warren: They looked for the best existing plans and the best data to show her the root causes of the problem. What they found was lacking.
There were plenty of policy experts on K-12 education, but relatively few were focused on higher education, and even fewer were focused on student loans. The number of ideas floating around to fix the problem was minuscule.
Policy development in Washington normally runs through think tanks. Think tanks need to raise money for policy programs. But since there was no money devoted to developing a policy to relieve student loan debt, there were relatively few experts in Washington on the issue at the time. So Warren hired a top academic expert to develop student loan debt relief policy on her staff.
In the seven years since, Warren has become the most active politician in America when it comes to investigating, transforming and eliminating student debt. As the problem has grown, her proposed solutions grew. She started by fighting to lower interest rates and pushing the Obama administration to investigate for-profit colleges with high default rates, and she slowly reached the point where it was time to push for the near-total elimination of student debt.
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