It's the election issue everyone — regardless of party — can relate to, and a problem affecting a majority of voters, yet candidates have offered few details on how to address rapidly rising college costs and mounting student loan debt.
That didn't change much Wednesday night at the third Republican debate, though the candidates who did address the issue seemed to agree on a few points.
One, that states should have more involvement — and the federal government should have less. "We do not need the federal government involved in this," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "It's broken."
Ohio Gov. John Kasich pointed to ways that his state is already "changing the system" to help lower the cost of college. "Universities won't get paid a dime unless a student graduates or completes a course," he said. "And we're working to go after the cost drivers," he added, though he did not offer specifics.
The GOP candidates also pointed to lower cost alternatives to the traditional on-campus four-year college degree. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the U.S. should bring back vocational schools . "We need to get back to training people in this country to do the jobs of the 21st century," Rubio said. "People need to get trained to do this work while they're still in high school so they can graduate and go to work."
And Kasich said: "We need to take advantage of online education to reduce the costs."
Reducing the cost of college is a big issue for voters. More than three-quarters, or 79 percent, of Americans do not think that higher education is affordable for everyone who needs it, according to a Gallup-Lumina poll released earlier this year.
Student debt in this country has reached record levels, with nearly $1.3 trillion in student loans outstanding. On average, student borrowers who graduated this year owe more than $35,051, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a student financial-aid policy expert and publisher of Edvisors.com.
That debt weighs heavily on graduates'plans, including buying a house, starting a small business, getting married and even having children, according to Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and the former Republican governor of Indiana.
Student-loan debt is also making a substantial contribution to the country's total consumer debt burden. It's the largest form of consumer debt outside of mortgages, having eclipsed both auto loans and credit cards, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
To date, GOP candidates have mostly touched on the issue in general terms. Donald Trump has said he is open to public refinancing of federal student loans and promotes job creation as a way to alleviate the debt burden for recent grads. (Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Lindsey Graham have also expressed support for student loan refinancing.)
Rubio, who said he had more than $100,000 in loans when he graduated from law school, said during the debate Wednesday, "I know what it feels like to owe that money."
He's proposed that before a student takes out loans, the school should tell them "how much you can expect to make when you graduate with that degree from that school."
Earlier this month, Kasich proposed downsizing the U.S. Education Department and returning much of its power and funding to individual states, something he reiterated during the debate.
Ben Carson has said that holding universities accountable for the interest on student loans and only making students responsible for the principal of the loan would encourage schools to find a way to rein in the cost of a degree.
Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has pushed for a "market-oriented approach" that has more accountability for higher education and lower costs. He has also touted more affordable online degree programs as an alternative to the four-year college experience.
"We have a range of proposals, but none of them are going after the problem that caused this high debt," noted Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
"No candidate, regardless of party, is going to be able to ignore this issue," agreed Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
During the recession, declining public funds caused tuitions to skyrocket. At public four-year schools, costs for the 2014–15 school year rose sharply to $18,943 from the $11,635 price tag in 2000–2001, according to the College Board. Tuition plus room and board at four-year private universities was even higher: $42,419 on average.
"Debt is one of the only ways students can finance their education," Finney said.
Also at the root of the issue is that "so many Americans are leaving with a lot more debt than they're used to without getting higher wages," Chopra said. While college costs have spiraled, wages have barely budged.
The average American took in $44,569.20 last year, according to data released last week by the Social Security Administration — just a slight increase from $43,041 the previous year. Meanwhile, median compensation came in at $28,851.21 for the year, up just slightly from $28,031.02 in 2013.
Student borrowers did get some welcome news from policymakers this week: New regulations announced by the Department of Education will prohibit overdraft fees and transaction swipe fees for bank or prepaid card accounts used to access student loans.
"That will help, but it will only help at the margin," Finney said. "There is a broader affordability issue that the public is very concerned about," she added. With the presidential election, voters will be looking to the candidates to offer more extensive solutions to the crushing cost of college.
"There are no easy fixes, but I'd like to see the GOP candidates weigh in [specifically] on what they would do to address college affordability and student debt," said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.
He added, though, that it may not happen until a Republican nominee is chosen.
They will have to address the issue of affordability during the general election because the Democratic nominee will be talking about it, but until then, it's just not an issue that attracts voters, he said.
Still, "it will be to their advantage to speak to this issue," Chopra added. "It's a broad concern across Americans of all political stripes. Whoever is the next president will determine whether the executive branch cracks down or if they allow these problems [of spiraling tuition costs and record student debt] to persist."
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