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Student Loan Debt Inspires 21-Year-Old to Run for Office

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Patrick Lockhart is 21 and lives at home — and he couldn’t be happier about it. Instead of going back to Indiana University this fall, he took off a semester to run for a seat in the Indiana General Assembly, hoping to represent his fellow residents of House District 91. On Election Day, he goes head-to-head with Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican who’s been the district’s representative since before Lockhart was born.

From Constituent to Candidate

What revs up a college student so much he wants to run for office, you ask? Student loan debt. Before starting his second year at IU, Lockhart noticed his sophomore student loan total was going to be larger than his freshman bill, so, concerned about the cost of higher education in Indiana, Lockhart decided to contact his representative in the statehouse.

Lockhart says Behning’s office never responded to his message, and that’s when he decided to take matters into his own hands. (Behning couldn’t be reached for comment.) In Indiana, state House of Representatives hopefuls have to be an Indiana resident for 7 years, a resident of the district they want to represent for at least 1 year and be at least 21 years old to be sworn in. As a lifelong Indianapolis resident, Lockhart met the candidacy requirements and ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.

After two years at IU, Lockhart racked up about $10,000 in education debt (it’s in deferment at the moment), despite having an academic scholarship, paying in-state tuition and working during the summer and school year.

“If it’s difficult for me, I can’t imagine how bad it must be for other people,” Lockhart said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to put my life on hold … because of this massive debt I took on to get a degree and get a good job.” He mentioned homeownership as an example of things he wants to do but thinks he’ll have to put off because of repaying student loans.

If elected, he says his priority is to make college more affordable for Hoosiers by advocating for more dual-credit programs (when students earn their high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time) and job-certification programs in high schools. Lockhart said there are a few examples in the state of schools successfully running such programs, but they should be more widely accessible. Giving students an affordable pathway to their desired career will ultimately help the economy, he said.

lockhart2Would You Vote for a 21-Year-Old?

His experience as a student loan borrower got him into the race, but his age hasn’t been much of a factor in his campaign, Lockhart said.

“The response has been enormously positive,” he said. “People are sick of politics, and they’re sick of politicians, and they’re ready for something new. I think in their minds that’s really what I am — an opportunity for something new.”

Whether he’ll actually be that “something new” is a different story. Behning’s 22-year tenure in the House is among the longest in the state — 14 of the 100 representatives in the Indiana statehouse have held office as long or longer — and Republicans are likely to maintain their strong hold on the General Assembly.

Behning hasn’t received a lot of campaign donations from groups that typically support him in elections, suggesting his race isn’t seen as a close one, according to Adam VanOsdol, editor of Indiana Education Insight. VanOsdol has covered education at the statehouse for a nearly a decade.

VanOsdol noted how Lockhart’s campaign seems to be geared at young voters, who tend to not participate in midterm elections.

“His candidacy didn’t really seem to catch on,” he said.

If Lockhart doesn’t win Tuesday, that doesn’t mean he’s done with the student loan issue. He’s not yet sure how he’d get involved — he’s focusing on the election — but he’ll go back to IU to earn his political science degree. If he wins, he’ll attend summer and fall classes, because the General Assembly convenes only between January and March or April, depending on the year.

“This is really kind of crippling our generation,” Lockhart said. “I definitely want to stay involved politically.”

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Images: Chip Pierson

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