Local Editorials

Before forgiveness, tackle cause of high student debt

Under relentless pressure from progressives in his party to provide college loan forgiveness, Democratic President Joe Biden said last week he is “taking a hard look” at the issue and “considering some debt reduction.”

Advocates of broad measures to forgive student loans frame it in terms of economic justice. Opponents see it as a matter of keeping one’s contractual obligations. Both arguments have substance, but both also are vastly oversimplified.

And, unfortunately, the entire discussion is badly timed and premature.

Let’s take the latter idea first. While many compelling points can be raised to acknowledge that race and economic factors have unfairly led to burdens for a large population of students, most of the discussion so far has centered not on the conditions causing the problem of student debt but on how to define “deserving” students and how much they should get.

Biden promised during his campaign that he would knock $10,000 off the student debt for “everybody in this generation.” How he arrived at that figure or who would receive it can only be reasonably attributed to the political pressures of an election campaign.

Which leads to the question of timing for the current debate. Again, Biden finds himself hemmed in by politics as the Democrats face a daunting risk of losing power after the midterm elections without some piece of opportune legerdemain to incite the attention and passions of a large group of voters. And again, that raises the specter of acting for political reasons rather than rational ones.

No one disputes the outrageous – and still escalating – costs of a college education today. But the answer is not to ask taxpayers to underwrite a one-time response that will not remedy the long-term problem. The answer requires us to take a hard look at the problem itself. Why is college so expensive? Why is higher education so out of reach for certain classes of students? Why are the expensive educations students are buying not sufficient to put them in jobs where they’ll earn enough to pay back their loans? What is government’s responsibility to support higher education or what benefits to society spring from higher education that justify government’s involvement?

These and many such questions remain barely whispered, while instead we argue simply over whether to give everyone $10,000 in relief (costing $250 billion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget), $50,000 (costing $950 billion) or the entire debt burden ($1.6 trillion).

And all of it doing nothing more than relieving the pain of a slim cross-section of current and former students while leaving the system that created their pain almost entirely untouched for future generations to deal with.

Political reality seems to suggest that, reason and equity aside, Biden will announce within weeks some expensive forgiveness plan to try to avert disaster for Democrats in November. That, of course, is not a good reason to undertake such a measure, and worse, it will neither solve the underlying problem nor likely satisfy the forces crying loudest for forgiveness.

The Daily Herald