Although it has been clear for years that our higher education system is in crisis, that student debt is financially crippling tens of millions of people, and that the whole idea of student debt is immoral, the pandemic has thrown these issues into sharp relief. On the day this article is published, a coalition including The Debt Collective, Black Lives Matter Philly, Sunrise Philly, and Philadelphia Student Union is protesting outside the Biden Campaign Headquarters in Philadelphia to demand total relief from student debt.
The Democrats have a unique opportunity right now to seize the narrative and force through some long overdue reforms to higher education. Unfortunately, the president-elect has said directly that he won’t, and that he isn’t even a fan of the most modest possible relief for the smallest possible number of people. This shouldn’t be too surprising, particularly since he was the architect (at the behest of his Delaware lender constituents) of the bill that made student debt harder to discharge in bankruptcy. It’s a shame, though, and a tremendous missed opportunity.
Things could be better. What follows is my idea of a speech that Joe Biden would give on the state of higher education and its future in this country if he had any principles or moral clarity. We already know he doesn’t, and I’m not expecting this to happen. But it’s a useful exercise to envision what the Democrats could do immediately, on their own, to make all of our lives better, if only they wanted to.
For a long time, the United States of America was a pioneer in public education. Beginning in the 1830s, state and local governments throughout this nation created free, open, public elementary schools. This was a revolutionary idea for a culture that, up until that point, considered education to be the province of the church and the rich. We broke with the past and created common schools for the common good. Recognizing that an educated citizenry benefits everyone, we opened up schools to everyone, and made childhood education a universal public good.
But that free and universal public education only went to the eighth grade. By the 1890s, high school was still the province of those who could afford to send their children to private academies. Again, American communities came together to create a free and open public education system. The high school movement—as it came to be called—took hold across the nation, and as free schools opened, enrollment climbed. By the middle of the 20th century, more than 80 percent of American teens attended high school full time, while no European nation had a rate over 25 percent. Leading economists have credited public high school with a great deal of our collective economic success throughout the 20th century. As with elementary school, the American model of free public high school education is now the international norm.
I should pause here to note that I have been calling public school free, open, and universal. But we all know this has never been fully true. American public schools have been segregated since the beginning, first in law, then in fact. It is a problem we still struggle with today, and a problem that I have not always lived up to my duty to help solve. But the problem of segregation is not a problem for free, open, and universal public schools as a concept. Rather, the problem is that our schools have never been free, open, and universal enough. Despite the grave sin of segregation, the American experiment in universal public schooling has been a resounding success, so much so that making school less free, less open, and less universal is almost unthinkable.
Now you might think, given the society-wide benefits of our free and open public schools, that college would be the next step. In fact, many people have thought this before. In the 1960s, as states created and expanded their public university systems, free, open, universal public college was within reach. California’s statewide system of research institutes, community colleges, universities, and graduate schools was tuition-free for residents with only nominal fees, and funded collectively by the state. New York, Virginia, and many other states were moving toward universal public higher education systems as well.
Unfortunately, this is when we made a big misstep. We had the opportunity in the Higher Education Act of 1965 to support and encourage the expansion of free, open, and universal higher education throughout the country, drawing on the same model that brought unparalleled success for elementary and high school. But instead of encouraging whole communities to take collective responsibility for higher education, we decided to put that responsibility on individual students. We decided that unlike in elementary and high school, students should be required to pay their own way through college.
This presented an immediate problem: surely we don’t want only the rich to attain education. But, again, instead of solving this problem with the proven universal public model, we decided to turn lenders loose on students who want education but can’t afford it. We planted the seeds for the federal student loan system that exists today. The idea was that the education would be of such benefit to students that, even if they couldn’t pay for it initially, they could surely be able to pay for it at the beginning of their future career. Many of the officials and legislators truly believed in this model, and believed they were doing the right thing by the American people. But the effect was that we required generations of Americans to mortgage their individual futures just to get an education, even though this education benefits all of us. We all make mistakes, and it is high time we acknowledge that this was a mistake.
Once we opened the door to college financing by students rather than community provision, the inevitable problems strolled right in. Student financing gave state and local governments an excuse to pull their financial support for their public college systems. Schools had little incentive to keep their price tags down, and the costs of college skyrocketed. For-profit schools proliferated, seeing that they could turn on a tap of federally-guaranteed money as long as they could sell an often poor, minority, and/or female student body the possibility of higher future earnings, whether that future would come true or not.
As former students struggled under growing debt loads, we had to remove borrower protections to keep the system running. We removed the time limits for collecting federal student debt that apply to nearly every other kind of debt. We all but removed bankruptcy protections from all student debt. Partly in response to the abuses in the private lending market, the federal government took over student lending directly. But this came with its own host of problems, as the government began doing things like garnishing students’ Social Security benefits and seizing their tax returns. We created a monstrous system, and we became monsters in order to maintain it.
And so we find ourselves here, today. Tens of millions of our neighbors are deep in debt. Only around a quarter of them are comfortably paying it off. Millions, or tens of millions of them will never pay it off. They will toil under crippling debt for decades, if not their whole lives, for nothing. For no benefit to anyone. Why? Because they wanted an education.
And you know what? This system doesn’t only hurt those who go into debt for college. Students who can afford to pay their own tuition end up paying more due to our policy of putting the burden of higher education directly on the students. Conversely, many people decide that even though they would like to go to college, it’s simply not worth the cost, and they abandon their dreams of pursuing an education because we have decided that our responsibility to each other ends at grade 12. We all benefit from an educated society, but we have shirked our responsibility to participate and support that education beyond high school.
In short, friends, we have done each other and ourselves a grave injustice. Now it’s time to fix it.
The right system—the system we should have had from the beginning—is a system of free, open, and universal public colleges at every level. This does not mean that all our colleges will be free, nor does it mean we will eliminate private higher education. Just as with high school, students will be free to pay for a private education should they choose. But every person in the nation will have the option of attending a quality public school for free at any level of higher ed.
As I said, this is the system we always should have had. Our failure of vision in 1965 has done irreparable harm. Unfortunately, I do not have the power to fix that harm completely. I can’t go back in time and make college free in the past. I can’t go and get refunds of every dollar that people paid toward higher education because they had no choice but to pay. In a perfect world we would have a universal free college compensation program that would right all the wrongs committed when we chose to place the burden of paying for education on the students. But this world is not perfect, and some wrongs cannot be righted.
Other wrongs can be righted, though. And I do have some power to help. So here’s what I’m going to do to fix what I can fix and get us back on track for a free, open, universal, and just education system:
- I’m going to cancel all outstanding student debt. The education financing model was a mistake. We might choose to leave the federal lending program in place for some private programs in a limited capacity, but we cannot justify continuing to immiserate people for burdens we should have at least offered to carry in the first place. The Secretary of Education has discretion over whether and how to collect outstanding student debt, and I will direct my Secretary of Education to cancel all of it. Not only will this alleviate the suffering of people who owe student debt, and remove a financial burden that never should have fallen on them in the first place, it will benefit the economy overall and make us all more prosperous.
- I will promise that, so long as the Democrats are in the White House, we will cancel all student debt held by anyone as a result of enrolling in the higher education program that they are enrolled in today. That means if you just enrolled in college, or in law school, or a masters program, or medical school, you can finish that program debt-free. It doesn’t matter the school or the program, we have you covered.
- I will also promise that, so long as the Democrats are in the White House, we will continue to cancel all student debt held by anyone who enrolls in a public college or university program unless and until Congress passes free college legislation that makes these public programs free, open, and universal. I can’t force Congress to enact free public higher education, but I can cancel debt incurred to finance public higher education until they enact it, and that is exactly what I will do. This is not a perfect solution—there will still likely be people who do not qualify for loans to go to public schools and have to pay upfront for what should be free—but it’s the most I can do, and I would implore those people to call their representatives and demand free public college now.
- I will direct my Department of Education to conduct an analysis of various refund plans and what each would entail. I don’t expect that we will be able to refund everyone who paid anything toward higher education, but I want to see the numbers. And in particular I want to know how much money we collected from our neighbors by force through things like social security or disability garnishments and tax return levies. This study will be comprehensive, it will be public, and I hope that it will inform at least some form of refund program for those most harmed by our system of education financing.
I’m under no illusion that this is a perfect solution, or that it will right all the wrongs and make everyone whole. We still have work to do to achieve the higher education system that we ought to have, the system to match our groundbreaking work in education at the elementary and high school levels. But I am here today outlining my plan to make clear to all of you what I believe is right: that higher education is a public good, and that it should be free, open, and universal to all at public institutions throughout the country. And I hereby promise to do everything in my power to get us there.
If you are in debt, and you want to organize with others to demand publicly funded education, universal healthcare, and guaranteed housing, consider joining The Debt Collective. You are not a loan.