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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

If You Want to Enact Free College, Cancel Student Debt Immediately

There are truly no good reasons not to cancel student debt.

Student debt cancellation is back in the public discourse despite little indication from Joe Biden that he’s actually interested in taking it seriously. Other Democrats are calling for limited attacks on the student debt crisis; even Chuck Schumer is asking for $50,000 per borrower of cancellation through executive action. Of course, the Student Debt Defenders are back as well, with former Obama advisor Jason Furman making dubious claims about GDP and Brookings Institute economist Beth Akers calling cancellation regressive (it is not regressive in any meaningful sense). Notwithstanding the brave SDDs, our higher education system is a travesty and a tragedy. It’s also a very recent one: in the 1960s this country moved away from free college and toward student loans, partly to shift costs onto students and off of employers and partly to avoid having to desegregate colleges

In the U.S., we insist that higher education is good and necessary—and it very well may be—but then we saddle anyone who isn’t rich when they enroll with a lifetime of the harshest, most draconian debt, collectable forever and even from the social safety net benefits (such as social security and disability income) other debt collectors can’t touch. The fact of the matter is that student debt is immoral. The two-part answer to this problem is clear enough: cancel the debt and make college free. Canceling the debt is easy, making college free is harder. But if we want free college, we had better cancel the debt right away. 

To quickly recap where things stand, Americans owe around $1.7 trillion in student debt, but not many of them are able to pay it back, and most of the debt will eventually be cancelled anyway, but only after the borrowers suffer for a couple decades. This debt worsens race and gender wealth gaps, financially cripples a whole generation, and makes people want to kill themselves. Canceling it would vastly improve the lives of people who currently have student debt and would benefit the economy as a whole. The president has the power to cancel every penny of student debt with the stroke of a pen: Joe Biden could do it his first minute in office.

So why not cancel student debt? Bad arguments against cancellation abound. It is fairly common to see wonky policy types oppose full student debt cancellation on the theory that it will worsen the racial wealth gap. The reason, they argue, is that in absolute dollars, proportionally more student debt is owed by white people than nonwhite people. Therefore, they call for lower level cancellation, which would eliminate the relatively lower balances owed by nonwhite borrowers while leaving proportionally more-likely-to-be-white borrowers with more debt. As Marshall Steinbaum has explained, this argument is contestable on its own terms, since cancellation would actually reduce the ratio of wealth disparity between white people and nonwhite people. 

But more importantly, this argument is misplaced from the start. Leaving people in unjust debt is not a helpful way to address the racial wealth gap. It treats the wealth gap as a balance sheet question rather than a real-life problem. Leaving more white people in more debt might have nice-looking spreadsheet effects, but it doesn’t actually help people suffering under severe wealth disparity. In other words, white debt is not Black wealth. And leaving people in debt to make the median wealth numbers look closer together helps no one, just like simply reducing white wealth to the levels of Black wealth would help no one. That is, if you see an average $100,000 per household gap between Black and white households, you can address that gap by taking money from white households, giving it to Black households, or some combination of both. But taking money from some people without giving it to others is an on-paper-only solution to a wealth gap: it doesn’t improve a single life. The problem isn’t so much the gap itself (though inequality does create harm by its very nature), but that nonwhite people don’t have much wealth. Also, the fact is that no one at median wealth levels has as much as they should have because so much wealth is concentrated at the (very white) top of the wealth distribution, in the hands of increasing numbers of ridiculous billionaires.

Student debt reduces some households’ wealth without increasing others’ wealth, making it a solution-on-paper to the problem of the racial wealth gap, but a solution that doesn’t actually help anyone. (This might remind you of the Clinton solution to a racialized criminal sentencing disparity: it wasn’t lowering sentences for crack cocaine, it was raising sentences for powder cocaine. Making everyone worse off to “solve” racism is an old Democrat trick.) And since many Black debtors owe large balances as well, cancelling only low balances would leave many Black debtors suffering for the sake of not helping too many white debtors too much. This is a view of racial distributive justice that only a wonk could love. In the end, the only way to address the racial wealth gap is to give money to non-white people, and that is not a function of student debt.

An even worse and perhaps more common argument against student debt cancellation is that it is somehow unfair to people who already paid off their student debt. But this argument is ridiculous and frequently ridiculed. It is an example of what has been termed a “boomer trolley problem.” In the classic trolley problem, the subject is faced with the choice of doing nothing and allowing a trolley to kill five people, or pulling a lever to divert the trolley, in which case it will kill one person. It is a thought experiment meant to tease out our moral intuitions about whether there is a meaningful difference between letting bad things happen when you could stop them on the one hand, and taking action that causes bad things on the other. In the boomer version, the trolley has already killed some people, and can be completely prevented from killing anyone else in the future. However, the person at the lever won’t spare the next victims because that wouldn’t be fair to the previous victims. To fully over-explain the joke, there is nothing moral or even reasonable about letting some people suffer just because other people have already suffered. People who have already paid off their loans may be owed refunds, but they are not owed the misery of others. 

The two preceding arguments often (but not always) seem to be offered in bad faith, or at least in a non-thoughtful way by people whose worldviews would never contemplate debt relief. There is a somewhat more good faith version of this latter argument, though—a version that had me swayed at one point—that is worth addressing because it is appealing and well-intentioned but exactly wrong. The argument goes like this: of course we want to cancel student debt, but we also want to make college free, and wouldn’t it be unfair to cancel the debt of those who already went to college while still forcing current and prospective students to take on debt? The conclusion is that we should try to accomplish free college and student debt cancellation together, but not separately.

First, it’s worth pointing out that though this sounds different from the argument that student debt cancellation will be unfair to those who already paid off their loans, it isn’t really. Both take the form: “it would be unfair to alleviate some suffering if you’re not alleviating all suffering.” This is never persuasive. Fewer people suffering is always better. Just as people who have already paid off their debt are not owed current debtors’ misery, people who may incur debt in the future are not owed current debtors’ misery. If the debt is canceled now as a one-time event, then future debtors will be wronged, but if the debt is not canceled now those future debtors  will still suffer the exact same wrong. The president only has the unilateral power to cancel current debt. This doesn’t mean past and future debt is just, but it does present a moral imperative: to relieve the suffering that can be immediately relieved. There is a different answer to alleviate future suffering, namely free college.

Free college is a very good idea and is itself a moral imperative. Now, if canceling student debt would make it harder to achieve free college, then the naysayers might have a point. But the idea that debt cancellation will impede free college is perfectly backwards. In fact, the best chance we have at achieving a meaningful free college program is to cancel all student debt through executive action right away. 

Federal free college, unlike debt cancellation, is an initiative that must be accomplished through Congress. Congresspeople are primarily responsive to issues when a lot of people whose votes they want are really angry. If Democrats want to encourage college students (and their families) to angrily demand free college, they should make clear to those students just how unacceptable a situation the higher education financing system puts them in. They should denounce the suffering and harm caused by student debt. And that denunciation will ring hollow if it’s not accompanied by full cancellation of existing debt. The message needs to be: “This is an unfair and harmful system. It needs to be reformed. We are doing everything in our power to fix it immediately by canceling outstanding debt. To fix this problem for future students we need congressional action. Call your representatives and demand that they pass free college.”

Canceling student debt will send the clear moral message that higher education is a public good, and that student debt is unjust. So far, the message Biden has sent is that student debt overall is good and justified, if just a Bit Much, and that he will at most consider a modest $10,000 cancellation for some debtors. This message is morally repulsive—it leaves millions in unjust debt for no good reason—but many people accept it uncritically. Democrats could easily and quickly flip this message by taking the ethical high ground and being honest about just how terrible (and ahistorical and unnecessary) our higher education system is, and the knock-on effects it’s had for current students and their families. The first big step is to declare student debt unjust and cancel it.

The alternative—leaving tens of millions of people suffering in debt while maybe also attempting to get Mitch McConnell to understand that college should be free—is unlikely to work. There’s no unity of message, no consistency. This line requires Democrats to try to strike some wonky balance of affordability and means-testing, to punch just the right numbers into their efficiency calculator and spit out the optimum policy goals. It’s bloodless and unconvincing. No one likes means testing, and if it’s offered, as usual, no one will believe the Democrats are sincerely committed to meaningful reform.

There are obvious and irrefutable reasons why canceling student debt is a moral necessity. Student debt shifted the burden for providing a public good onto those who, by definition, cannot afford to pay for it. It is causing unnecessary suffering and is within the president’s power to fix immediately. That point needs to remain front and center. But, as explained above, there are political reasons as well. To someday pass a free college program that’s anything but a handout to colleges and finance companies, the Democrats will need a groundswell of popular support and political engagement. This is unlikely to come in response to efficiency calculations and half-hearted moralizing without the action to back it up. If we want free college, we need lots of people to see that it is a moral necessity, and to demand it for themselves. There is no better way to get people to start demanding free college than by cancelling outstanding student debt.

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