CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC fall interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Colette Ngo is a senior at Chapman University. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.
Young voters are fired up and research shows they will be a decisive factor in the 2020 election. And, they clearly have a lot at stake: They are entering the workforce during one of the most brutal economies since the Great Depression.
"In the next president, we need a leader who will recalibrate the ethical and moral compass of this nation, as well as work to repair the damaged relationships both domestic and abroad while representing the country and the diversity that makes up this country, properly on the global stage," said Jaden Cody, a Morehouse College student and director of "Get on the Bus," an initiative he said is aimed at "empowering young black men to take back their narrative."
Students are expected to turn out in record numbers for this election. In the Harvard Youth Poll, 63% of respondents indicated they will "definitely be voting," in contrast to 47% in 2016. More than seven million young people, ages 18-29, have already voted early or absentee in the 2020 elections.
With the economy being a top voting issue, young voters want to know what the future will look like for them. Will they be able to find a job in a post-pandemic economy? Will they be able to get affordable health care when they are off their parents' plans?
Here are some of the economic issues that several college and graduate students said were important to them:
Most students raised concerns about the availability of affordable health care. The Affordable Care Act provided more than 20 million Americans with health insurance and has reduced disparities in access to health care among Black and Hispanic adults. But, the future of ACA is in jeopardy.
Several students expressed concern about President Trump's plans to replace Obamacare, leaving insurance companies to compete for customers. Many favored Joe Biden's plan to build on the Affordable Care Act.
"I urge our next president to secure a health-care system that will not leave the millions of people that rely on the Affordable Care Act stranded and without access to proper medical care, especially those that live with pre-existing conditions," said Terrence Bourgeois Jr., an honors student at Xavier University.
"How is it that we can be one of the greatest nations in the world, but cannot offer affordable health care to all who need it?" asked Ashley Halter, a graduate student at Ohio State University.
Halter, who is also a business operations coordinator at James Cancer Hospital, said she has seen patients spend stimulus checks on things others normally wouldn't, like therapy.
"I think about the people who are here doing chemo twice a week, and they're maxing out their health care. And they're paying for a lot of these things out of pocket. And so when the stimulus comes around, you know, it's going to their third treatment," said Halter. "I want to see a health-care option available to every American."
Students say the issues of health care and race directly correlate to one another, as Obamacare worked to narrow racial disparities. A Commonwealth Fund study says five years after ACA was implemented, Black adults living in states that expanded Medicaid reported coverage rates and access to care measures as good as or better than what white adults in non-expansion states report. If the ACA is taken away, this leaves millions of Americans without health insurance, which in turn, may exacerbate the racial wealth gap.
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"The health-care disparity really affects African-American people and people of color in this country," said Cody. "For me, having a conversation about the health of the economy has a large part to do with the health of the people who are also going to be making this economy move."
Jordan Centry, an MBA student at University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School and class president of the MBA Student Association, brought up the fact that the economy is doing well in regard to the stock market recovering from its 2020 losses. Yet wealth inequality continues to grow and it affects low-income communities of color the most.
"The pandemic has a disproportionally negative effect on Black people and is further limiting our ability to invest in securities," Centry said.
Young voters believe it is important for the next president to address the racial wealth gap. Brionna Bryant, a graduate student at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business who is pursuing a career in forensic accounting after graduation, proposed that the next administration should create initiatives that will directly advance equality across the economy.
"I specifically would like to see action taken related to the wage gap, access to capital/lending [and] homeownership," Bryant said.
Student debt is one of the most severe issues affecting college students and paying it off can seem like a never-ending process.
In the U.S., student loan debt is the second largest category of consumer debt, behind only mortgage debt. There are currently 42 million student loan borrowers, and the average balance is around $30,000.
As interest rates rise over time, student debt accumulates and creates an "inescapable hole for many people financially" Bourgeois said.
The student debt crisis hits minorities and women the hardest. Black graduates owe on average $7,400 more on student loans than their white counterparts. Additionally, women hold two-thirds of the country's student debt and on average borrow $3,000 more than men to attend college.
On top of that, the return on investment for a college degree is eroding as the chance of getting a job after graduation – and one that pays well – is decreasing. At the same time, the cost of attending college is rising.
"Education is a privilege not just in the United States but all around the world. I wish this wasn't a privilege though," said Halter. "I wish that education was an opportunity every single American had access to."
Many young voters advocate for free education at the community college level. They also hope, in the next four years, that there will be programs for loan forgiveness or lowering student debt interest rates, like Morehouse College student Brandon White, who's a first-time voter and currently undecided.
"In order to solve this, the president might have to partner with third-party educators to provide education at a cheaper price. This will guarantee that students will receive an education regardless of their socioeconomic status," said White, a Morehouse College student and an intern for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
There is also the issue of equal funding for school districts and how it affects the pipeline of students from high school to college. Schools that lack funding sometimes cannot provide the same education than those that get funding, Bryant said. This can lead to lower student GPAs that then hinder the opportunity for getting into college, nevermind even being able to afford higher education.
"The improvement to the education system needs to start with K-12. Ensuring that all students have access to resources regardless of their social class," Bryant said. "The next president can improve the education system by making community college free and creating pipeline programs to four-year institutions.
College students are graduating into one of the worst recessions in history with high unemployment and lower earnings compared to those who graduated in previous years. The current unemployment rate is 8%, compared to what the natural rate of unemployment should be at around 5%. And youth unemployment for ages 16-24 is even worse at 13.5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Plus, with the unprecedented mass layoffs and hiring freezes for companies across the country, students will likely be competing with candidates with more work experience. Some industries, like restaurants, tourism and hospitality have been upended — graduates may be forced to pivot from their dream jobs to something more realistic.
"I believe the president should consider an expansionary fiscal policy and increase government spending, resulting in higher employment," Centry said.
It's going to be difficult for many students to get a job after graduation and within months, their student loans are going to start coming due. They'll need a job and access to health care. They've witnessed so much racial injustice and inequality and they're outraged. They want to know that they have a leader who will help improve the economy they are graduating into and make it a place of opportunity not just for a select few but for everyone.
"My biggest concern going into 2021 is not having the leadership in office that will protect all women and their choices, advance communities of color by dismantling disparities and injustices, grow the economy, and propel America forward," Bryant said.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.