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On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced that Americans making less than $125,000 per year will be eligible for forgiveness of up to $10,000 of their federal student loans. Meanwhile, people who have received a Pell Grant — the needs-based grant for low-income students — will have up to $20,000 of debt canceled.
The administration said the new measures will make “the student loan system more manageable for current and future borrowers,” and added that the Department of Education is also proposing to cap repayments on undergraduate loans at 5% of a borrower’s monthly income.
For people who have long suffered under the weight of long-standing student loans, any relief is welcome. About 45 million Americans have federal student debt, and thanks to staggering increases in education costs and poor wage growth, the conditions for repaying debt have worsened. This has made the reality of student debt the defining fact of many people’s lives.
So it’s curious, then, that Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate minority leader, dismissed Biden’s sweeping student debt forgiveness. McConnell told reporters that the president’s move is “a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt, and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt.”
He is not alone in this sentiment against student loan forgiveness. Some people see suffering through repayment as a rite of passage, a pay-your-dues kind of ordeal. The basic argument is that forgiving the debt is unfair to people who have already gone through the suffering.
Fine, for the sake of argument, let us grant that it’s unfair, that it benefits the current generation of student debt holders more than the people who have already struggled through repaying loans. But even if it is unfair, it is still worth pursuing. A mass student loan forgiveness scheme is an essential policy correction to a worsening social crisis: These loans have strayed from their original purpose as a means of transcending a borrower’s circumstances to allow them entry into a comfortable middle-class life and have now become albatrosses around the necks of loanees who are barely treading water, working to repay what they owe with no hope of getting ahead.
I don’t need to recount for you the hundreds of stories from recent years of borrowers who are drowning under the weight of their debts. In each one, the trajectory is roughly the same: A young student thought that a college education would be their ticket to a successful career. They don’t want to be rich, they’d tell reporters. They just want a stable life, free of worry. They all end the same, too: underemployment, piling debt, regret, and uncertainty about what’s next.
What these stories gesture to is a larger failure: Sometime in this millennium, a college education stopped being a guarantee of a better life. This is repeated now matter-of-factly, but it’s a significant shift in the promises made to young people. If you carry student debt now, there’s a good chance you were sold the college dream only to find yourself in purgatory.
That’s not to say college has ceased being a door to better jobs altogether — just that the cost of the promise is so high that many people with good jobs on paper find themselves repaying student loans so expensive that they don’t reasonably have a chance to pay them off ever.
After I graduated university in 2011, I received an urgent email from my student loan provider: It was time to choose the term length to repay my $45,000 loan. I did not hesitate to slide the toggle all the way to the right, opting for the longest possible repayment period: 14 years. This was the only way I could afford the monthly payments, and even then, they were going to be a stretch for my retail job salary at the Apple Store.
I managed to repay the debt in just under 10 years, by the grace of landing a good job in media — a rarity — and help from my in-laws. I cannot conceive of a world in which I would demand that others suffer through the same length of time as I did, and force themselves to struggle to repay like I did. While I was making my student loan payments, in no world did I think, This is the right way to live, and everyone should have to go through this. This conception of the world is myopic, cold, and punitive.
Biden’s move to forgive some student debt has come on the heels of sustained pressure by some Democrats to eliminate all student debt. At a town hall last year, the president heard calls for debt relief up to $50,000. Biden rejected the calls out of hand, saying he doesn’t want to give debt relief to “people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.” As a political move, it was savvy on his part — appearing to grant breaks to people who are already privileged would be a bad look.
Never mind that only 0.3% of borrowers attended Ivy League schools, though, Biden’s rejection underscores the core of the problem: Policymakers like McConnell and Biden seem to be so interested in individual choices that they are missing the forest for the trees. The student debt system as a whole has failed because the very promise of college is currently failing. It’s no wonder that college enrollment is down in the US, as more prospective students clue into this reality. Instead of secure jobs and future prospects, college graduates are largely matriculating to poor prospects and underemployment. College was sold as the path to a dream, and that dream is gone. There’s a whole generation that can attest to that. It’s time to be fair to them, too.●
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