President Biden's coming decision on student debt relief will face outrage from those who think forgiving loans is beyond the pale
In an effort to evoke conversation about the growing probability that President Biden will pursue an executive order to forgive some amount of student loans, I posted the following thought on Twitter. Did I expect the flood of responses—more than 8,000 replies so far—and particularly the depth of hostility toward this issue? I did not.
I could offer here a conversation about tax and financial policy, or perhaps a detailed discussion about financing of higher education and the choices that many colleges and universities have made to attract more students (fancy dorms! swanky classrooms! gourmet meals!) as well as to expand the variety of educational opportunities available to students that accelerate rising tuition.
But the virulent responses to my tweet lead me to wonder about the levels of hostility between those with or seeking college degrees and those without; how far many have drifted from belief in government’s role to moderate the struggles of everyday citizens to survive and get ahead; the assumption that anyone who supports loan forgiveness lacks “personal responsibility”; perhaps the lack of understanding that the country increasingly needs a well-educated workforce; and the growing impulse to blame fellow Americans for their choices rather than question the structural failures in systems and policies.
Beyond the usual outpouring of ad hominem attacks—those who struggle to pay their loans and hope for debt relief are “stupid and lazy” or “crybabies” or are too busy enjoying “spring break in Cancun” to pay their bills—it’s notable how many criticisms emphasized the ignorance or indulgence of pursuing liberal arts degrees (with gender studies high on the list of crimes). This despite the growing recognition by executive leaders of the value of liberal arts training to critical thinking and the social and creative skills needed by technology and other industries.
I should also note that my choice of the word “suffer”—rather than perhaps “struggle” or another more neutral term—may have triggered some of the more extreme replies. My underlying intent was to emphasize the real difficulties that many students face to repay not just the principal on their loans, but often onerous interest rates that make it hard to get out from under this debt as they try to propel their post-school work lives.
This is especially true for those who (by economic necessity) take on student debt, then fail to complete their degree (for a multitude of personal reasons)—leaving them saddled with financial baggage without the proven positive thrust that a college degree aims to provide in boosting income potential and hoped-for social mobility. While it’s this cohort who the aggrieved critics are quick to attack, it’s important to note that the decision to take on that debt is rational economic behavior: Workers with a four-year undergraduate degree typically earn nearly $1 million more in their lifetimes than a similar worker only possessing a high school degree.
During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden pledged to cut student debt by some $10,000 per person. The more progressive Elizabeth Warren urged cutting $50,000 in student debt, an amount she said would offer “permanent total relief” for 36 million Americans.
There is a reason why this was and still is a high-profile issue: Student debt now exceeds $1.5 trillion, up from $250 billion in 2004. It represents the second largest piece of household debt after mortgages. While news coverage often highlights the extreme cases of six-figure debt, only 6 percent carry more than $100,000 in debt.
One Twitter reply urged the rejection of the “scarcity mindset” and the assumption that “doing something good for someone else comes at the cost of something for ourselves.” Another noted that forgiving student loans is “one way we can help the next generation succeed…where we could not.” Various others reasonably asserted that making student loans interest-free can meaningfully address a system in which far too many fail to escape escalating high-interest debt.
While one ironic commenter said that “all student loan holders should be held hostage until the entire system changes,” another refused to recognize the more complex role that student loans play in creating educational opportunity for the good of both economically disadvantaged Americans and the society overall. “Please pay off the rest of my home loan,” he whined. “The interest over 30 years is unbearable.”
And then there’s a self-described libertarian who offered this considered summary: “I don’t support loan forgiveness because I think it 1) punishes taxpayers 2) disregards those who never took on debt 3) rewards bad behavior of students and parents who took on bad debt for useless degrees 4) perpetuates bloated university admins.”
Yet this antagonized response suffers from the assumption of bad faith by loan holders. It also presumes a scarcity mindset that ignores how relieving millions of people from this debt can unleash more productive spending and behavior, and it fails to acknowledge that different government programs typically support different populations. As a taxpayer, am I punished because some of my money goes to fund the defense department or the child tax credit or disabled veterans if I would rather my money served other purposes?
Earlier this year, Brookings offered its view of why cross-the-board student debt relief is not as useful as targeted approaches to close racial and socioeconomic gaps. They proposed:
“…means-tested grant and loan aid that promote access and completion at high-quality educational institutions; rigorous oversight of institutions that participate in federal programs; progressive, well-designed and well-administered income-based repayment plans that insulate borrowers whose education doesn’t pay off; and targeted relief to borrowers who can clearly demonstrate that their loans impose significant economic hardship.”
I understand why some of those who worked hard to successfully pay off their loans think it’s unfair to let other debt holders off the hook, especially if they gamed the system by stretching out their college years to avoid entering the workforce. I also understand why some critics look at the prospects of debt forgiveness and see another example of a generation that expects a trophy not because they earned it but just because they showed up.
But it’s not sufficient to grasp that a system is broken, condemn those drowning in it for wanting relief, and simply insist that they are abusing their loan contracts and lack personal responsibility. While President Biden’s coming decision may be hastened by his hope that it will fulfill a campaign promise and motivate millions of reluctant voters to support Democrats, my innocent Twitter experiment suggests that there will be plenty of angry Republicans screaming “unfair” and turning up the attacks on Biden no matter what he decides.
If you have the stomach for it, do take a look at the flood of outraged replies, including this enthusiastic one just sent as I’m typing: “You really are brain dead aren’t you.” If only there were the same level of outrage toward the roughly $20 billion in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
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