Student loan forgiveness may not be fair, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very good

The Biden administration’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 of the college loan debt owed by borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year has some critics saying it’s not fair to people who either don’t qualify for the program or have paid off their loans. Of course, the most vocal critics are Republicans who would not agree with the president if he told them the time of day.

They say the Biden plan isn’t fair because some people will be left out. “I think it is a bad idea. An awful lot of Americans choose not to go to college,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). “If you are that slacker barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things, now has loans, and can’t get a job, Joe Biden just gave you 20 grand,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R, Texas).

Didn’t it used to be Republicans who accused Democrats of instigating class warfare? That was before Donald Trump proved a rich man with a record for grifting the poor that’s longer than Marley’s Ghost’s chain can get away with calling other people elitists. Now, his acolytes from sea to shining sea are making speeches to the gullible about being fair.

But is being fair really the right goal when it comes to executing public policy?

Those of us who attended school way back in the Dark Ages of the 20th century had teachers who instead of adorning our papers with an A, B, C, D, or F, might shake things up by grading our work as excellent, good, fair, poor, or fail. Good was always better than fair, which is the standard that should be applied by a country that wants to achieve excellence.

» READ MORE: Biden’s student loan forgiveness is cause for celebration | Opinion

What may not be fair for some of us individually could be very good for us all as a nation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get that point across to people who refuse to look beyond their personal interests. Some of the same people oppose affirmative action programs because they are not available to everyone. From that perspective, affirmative action may not seem fair, but it is good.

It is undeniable that many, but not all, African Americans still suffer the vestiges of slavery and segregation. It’s easy to find them. Too often Black Americans live in the nation’s lowest-income communities, where high crime, poor public health, and a dearth of jobs remain critical. Providing advantages to the people in those communities isn’t just good for them, it will contribute to this country’s future prosperity. So will reduce student loan debt.

Nearly $1.75 trillion in student loan debt is owed in this country. The average US household carries $58,957 in student loans, with individual debtors owing an average of $28,950. Many are doing the best they can to pay a debt they incurred after being told college would be their key to the American dream. Their debt wouldn’t be so high if that dream hadn’t gotten so expensive.

With less student loan debt, families can contribute more to the economy. They can pay other bills on time, maybe buy a home, or set money aside for their own children’s education.

Thanks to scholarships, I graduated from a small, private, liberal arts college in Kansas in 1975, owing only about $4,000 to the National Defense Student Loan program, now called the Federal Perkins Loan program. My tuition increased from $1,350 to $1,600 during my four years as an undergraduate. Tuition at that same school today is $31,620.

» READ MORE: Biden’s big move on student loans only a first step toward making American college great again | Will Bunch

That increase isn’t unusual. A survey by US News showed the average tuition and fees charged by private universities nationally rose 144% between 2002 and 2022. In-state students were hurt the most. Their lower tuition and fees jumped 211% during those 20 years, compared to a 171% hike for higher-paying out-of-state students.

Reduce the cost of college and fewer students will end up with debts they have trouble repaying. Some of that cost is due to states still contributing less to higher education than they did before the 2007 recession. It’s also becoming more expensive to pay administrators, not faculty. Presidents at research universities make, on average, $450,000 a year, and most presidents typically get a complimentary car, free housing, and sometimes free club memberships.

The college loan system also contributes to the cost. Federally guaranteed student loans allowed more students to pay for college, which prompted many colleges to increase admissions. But instead of lowering tuition because they had more paying students, colleges raised tuition year after year to pay for upgraded facilities to attract more students — and to hire savvy administrators who could boost their endowments.

It’s going to take much more than a loan forgiveness program to address that aspect of higher education’s exorbitant cost. But debtors need relief now, and who knows when the nation’s colleges and universities will admit their role in creating the problem and work with the Department of Education to resolve it?

“Debtors need relief now.”

Harold Jackson

One other criticism of Biden’s loan forgiveness program is that it will cause inflation, but the seesawing of the economy in recent months shows that nothing is absolute. In fact, some analysts believe people are more likely to pay off other debts than go on a spending spree if some of their college debt is forgiven. Then, too, some debtors eligible to participate in the forgiveness program won’t because they stopped making payments long ago.

It’s time to stop crying about what’s fair and do what’s good.

Harold Jackson, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was the editorial page editor for The Inquirer from 2007 to 2017.


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