While President Trump still dominates your TV screen by refusing to surrender the last war, in a dead-ender “last throes” jihad of embarrassing courtroom losses, the savvier political and ideological players of the bitterly divided left and right in America are already mapping strategy out for the first great battle under the 46th president, Joe Biden.
To be a little more specific, America’s staggering $1.7 trillion student debt, which is increasingly seen as a millstone around the necks of millions of mostly Millennials and Gen Z-ers who felt compelled in today’s job market to wager thousands of dollars in loans for the credential of a university diploma, with mixed results.
The fact that proposals to allow the incoming President Biden to wipe away billions of dollars of that debt, by executive fiat, became Topic A among the nation’s Twitterati and its warring armies of op-ed writers — instead of, say, expanding health care or raising the minimum wage — is a revealing insight into the looming political wars of the 2020s. In the do-or-die election that wrapped up on Nov. 3, U.S. voters divided more starkly than ever along the growing fault line of college grads — overwhelmingly Democratic now — and those without diplomas, including the millions in rusted-out factory towns, who lined up to vote Trump.
Even before all those votes were counted, Sen. Elizabeth Warren — avatar of the Democrats’ younger and increasingly educated base, who’s been pushing to move Team Biden left since her own 2020 bid fell short — has been urging the soon-to-be president to use powers he arguably has under the 1965 law that gave Washington a larger role in higher education to cancel up to $50,000 of each borrower’s federal debt. Her plan has the backing of party leader Chuck Schumer, who could be the new Senate majority leader if Democrats pull off the difficult task of sweeping two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.
To Warren, Schumer, and scores of civil rights and other left-leaning groups who back the idea, the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of layoffs falling hardest on younger workers, has exposed the giant weight of never-ending monthly loan repayments making it hard for the under-35 set to buy a house or even get married. Critics lay the blame on an out-of-control system in which tuition more than tripled over three decades (spoiler alert: Your paycheck did not) while both the college-loan industrial complex and increasingly scammy for-profit colleges became more predatory. And in a year of racial reckoning, it’s hard to ignore stats showing the $1.7 trillion weight falls a lot more heavily on Black and brown students who increasingly see they were oversold on the value of the jobs awaiting debt-burdened grads.
“It does a good job of leveling out some of the racial wealth gap,” Eddy Conroy, associate director of research communications for the Philadelphia-based Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, told me in support of debt relief. Conroy agreed that to some extent the move would stimulate the economy — freeing young people to spend their paychecks more productively — but a stronger argument is reversing an economic injustice. “If we’re going to do something about the cost of college going forward,” he said, “we need to hold harmless those who over the last 20 years have been damaged by these levels of student borrowing.”
Who could argue with that? A lot of people, it turns out.
Here in Philadelphia, Damon Linker, a lecturer in the critical-writing program at Penn, authored a viral tweet that he expanded into a column for The Week in which he described a massive student-debt cancellation as “folly.”
Linker noted that both college grads and student-debt holders are a minority of Americans and adds: “Those who carry student debt are nowhere near the neediest people in the country. In a world of finite resources, where priorities need to be made, they should be nowhere near the top of the list of those receiving a multi-billion-dollar handout from the federal government.” Linker also cites the popular economist Thomas Piketty, a harsh critic of modern capitalism, who argued that center-left policies seen as benefiting upper-middle-class elites are what’s fueled the rise of right-wing populism, including the presidency of Trump.
Not surprisingly, Linker’s take was quickly adopted, more crudely, both by chipper “personal-responsibility” mavens who imply the debt crisis is the fault of the individual borrowers, but also some of those right-wing populists who’ve made the idea of college itself — not just ridiculous tuition (who could argue there?) but also as a place where they claim liberal “snowflakes” are indoctrinated by leftist profs — their political bête noire.
Popular conservative Ben Shapiro said there shouldn’t be debt forgiveness but massive refunds from the universities who “scammed millions of Americans into degrees in Useless Theory Masquerading As Valuable Life Skills.” (It wasn’t clear where exactly Shapiro’s own diploma in political science from UCLA fits into that picture.)
And so where is President-elect Biden on all of this? Right now, with apologies to Stealers Wheel, stuck in the middle, the place where politics watchers are worried he might be mired in muck the next four years. The most recent iteration of a Biden plan calls for a much smaller and also more narrowly targeted forgiveness of just $10,000, which would mean millions would still face those dreaded monthly payments. In other words, far less than what the Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is seeking, yet still enough to energize the right-wingers eager to launch a new kind of Tea Party revolt against “Bidenism.”
The truth is that, for all the stats and academic persuasion around a complex financial issue like student debt, at the end of the day elections are a fight for raw power, and resources, and often winner-take-all, between society’s competing voting blocs. Whether it’s morally right or not, the biggest beneficiary of forgiving student loans would be the coalition that put Biden in the White House — suburban families and young people across all racial boundaries. And whether it’s morally right or not, the nearly half of America who voted for Trump — especially among the 36% who didn’t attend college at all, and the media howlers who front for them — will scream bloody murder if Biden picks up his presidential pen.
I think critics of immediate debt relief, such as Linker, are missing some of the broader social problems behind this $1.7 trillion blob — both the privatization of higher ed that locked in American inequality, as well as the structural racism that preyed on the hopes of our Black and brown young people — and what a giant step toward equity a rollback would represent. At the same time, he and others are stone-cold right on the messy politics. If debt relief gets spun as a gift to Democratic voters, it could hand conservatives a powerful tool — resentment of so-called entitled elites — to bludgeon Biden in the 2022 midterms and end any hope he has of governing.
This is why I’m arguing we need to radically rethink a college paradigm in this country that — over the course of several generations — has divided the citizenry into angry factions while crushing the American Dream for so many. We need to make a massive investment in higher education — trust me, the nation that wasted $2 trillion in Afghanistan and invented the school-to-prison pipeline can find the cash, especially with interest rates at zero — but we also need to reinvent just what higher education means, for a new millennium.
Any solution needs to start with a fundamental understanding of how evenly divided America is today among the 36% of degree holders, the 36% who stopped at high school, and the fulcrum of 28% who attended some college, many of whom were hindered by the high cost or other problems from staying in school longer.
Student-debt cancellation is the right thing to do, but the impact will be only temporary without a global solution that factors in the needs of everyone in that 36-36-28 divide. So that would include free community colleges with a more expansive vision of what they can become, free public-university tuition, as well as money for trade school, apprenticeships, and other vocational training. I’ve argued for going a step further, with the feds funding a mandatory gap year of civilian service for 18-year-olds — both as a bridge to this new world of higher learning but also as a tool for getting resentful Rust-Belters and future cosmopolitan elites and everyone else out of their narrow silos and working toward some common good. Hopefully we’ll remember our civil war — over the future of America and the future of college — as one that didn’t get beyond the Twitter phase.
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