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If your 73-year-old mom waits tables to pay your college debts, maybe the system is broken | Will Bunch

Reports that President Biden will soon wipe out some of America's $1.7 trillion student dent is only the start of fixing our wrecked way of college.

In 2009, University of California Los Angeles students Andrea Flores (left) and Kendall Brown demonstrated outside the UC Board of Regents meeting, where members voted to approve a 32% tuition hike.
In 2009, University of California Los Angeles students Andrea Flores (left) and Kendall Brown demonstrated outside the UC Board of Regents meeting, where members voted to approve a 32% tuition hike.Read moreDavid McNew / MCT

In the increasingly loud, fraught debate over what to do about America’s $1.75 trillion college debt bomb — not to mention the morality or immorality of this festering crisis — the image of a 73-year-old mom waiting tables has become the ultimate Rorschach test.

For conservative Fox News cable host Laura Ingraham, the daughter of the septuagenarian in this saga, and her allies on the American right, the fact that her mother continued working on her feet as a food server well into the traditional retirement years to finish paying off her children’s college education, including some outstanding loan debt, is a tribute to the grit and determination that help families get ahead.

“Loan forgiveness,” Ingraham tweeted last week, is “just another insult to those who play by the rules.”

But critics pounced on the story as proof the game itself is a twisted one. The U.S. college loan crisis that has essentially accelerated from 10 to 85 mph over the first 22 years of this millennium, critics rightfully argue, is a largely manufactured event that has wreaked havoc throughout the aspirational middle and working classes. While millions of young people get trapped in their parents’ basement because they’re too weighed down by debt to get their own place, a lot of parents like Ingraham’s mom have sacrificed their own retirement.

“We want 73-year-old moms to work less and rest,” the Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali wrote on Twitter. “We want others to have a better life. We don’t need people to suffer to ‘feel great again.’”

There’s no question that American life didn’t have to be this way. But now that we’ve made this giant mess, there’s also no easy answer for what to do about it.

President Joe Biden is about to give it his best shot. After months of hectoring from advocates reminding him about his (albeit ambiguous) 2020 campaign promise to eliminate at least $10,000 of each individual’s debt burden and watching his approval numbers with young voters plummet, the 46th president is on the brink of a major move between now and Aug. 31. That’s when a more than two-year, pandemic-driven pause in loan payments is slated to end.

The Washington Post this weekend revealed the rough contours of what the Biden administration is looking at: a sweeping college debt forgiveness program that would wipe away at least $10,000 of most student loans, although with income limits that would exclude high earners. It’s possible that income and loan data could be used to offer higher levels of relief to some debtors. The plan would only target loans for undergraduate education.

The half-a-loaf solution — some Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have sought at least $50,000 per student, and activist groups like the Debt Collective want total relief — is a giant leap forward that nonetheless will probably make a lot of folks on both sides unhappy. Some folks on the left will likely complain that Biden should have done more; the $10,000 option costs $245 billion, thus leaving the majority of the $1.75 trillion intact. Yet conservatives are already sharpening their knives to attack the fundamental concept of forbearance.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Brian Riedl, a conservative policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, told the Post, complaining that the move is essentially a political payoff to urban professionals who increasingly form the base of the Democratic Party. Conservative lawmakers and activists will presumably challenge in court whether the president even has the legal authority to make such a move by executive action, rather than going through Congress.

It’s unfortunate that the fate of this initiative may be decided by the increasingly right-wing, Trump-fried federal judiciary, because forgiving these debts on a massive scale, and probably totally, is the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. The strange saga of Laura Ingraham’s waitress mom was just one of many stories that poured forth on social media this weekend — most depicting how the college debt burden has kept them or their families from living their best lives.

Michelle Miller, a West Virginia worker activist, tweeted about her mom, who’d split Miller’s $30,000 debt but then struggled to pay back her half. Despite medical and job setbacks, she refused to let her daughter take over the obligation. “The difference [between] poverty and doing alright was the $400 monthly payment on those student loans,” she wrote. Even as the mom’s health rapidly deteriorated, she insisted on paying.

“This is what we talked about the last week my mom was alive,” Miller wrote. “Loans. Student [expletive deleted] loans.” Only upon her mom’s death did Miller learn the initial $15,000 had ballooned to $80,000, although a bank ultimately agreed to forgive the deceased woman’s debt.

» READ MORE: Clock ticks for Biden on college debt bomb | Will Bunch Newsletter

A whopping 45 million Americans hold college debt right now, and every one of them has a different story of some sort. What most folks don’t realize is how many of these loan recipients — nearly 40%, according to the best research — weren’t able to earn a degree and ended up in the worst of both worlds, struggling to get a good enough job to meet their monthly payments. The Biden administration hopes the $10,000 number would particularly help this category.

The young people who were given loans — but not any help in dealing with the many other hassles middle-class kids face in finishing college — are just one piece of the moral argument for loan forgiveness, which in my mind matters more than any economic argument. In one way or another, almost every American who went off to college since the 1980s was sold a bill of goods.

For some, the scheme was blatant, as lower-income kids desperate to climb the ladder were targeted by often scammy for-profit universities that used boiler-room recruitment tactics and steered students to max out on loans, in a system in which the schools got all of the dollars from Washington while these young people taught underwhelming career skills were on the hook, assuming they even graduated.

But even kids who went to reputable public or private universities have been cheated. That’s because conservative state lawmakers pulled the plug on college as a “public good” and slashed funding for higher education at the exact time that rapid changes in the economy made a college degree practically the only valid passport for staying in the middle class and at the same time that colleges fought to woo students with expensive prestige branding rather than any effort to keep tuition low.

Don’t just take it from me (although I did just write an entire book on this subject), but take it from Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who wrote this weekend that “[e]ven those who weren’t outright cheated, however, were pulled in by elite messaging assuring them that a college degree was a ticket to financial success” — when for so many it wasn’t, because of dropouts or lower-than-expected earnings.

A massive debt forgiveness — the bigger the better, frankly — is really the only way to right a great American wrong. But while Biden is poised on the brink of the boldest move of his presidency so far, his efforts will nonetheless fail if he doesn’t think much, much bigger.

Here’s the deal: Currently, only about 37% of U.S. adults hold a four-year college degree. But “the college problem” is really a much bigger problem in the way that we prepare 100% of our youth — the third who get bachelor’s degrees, the third who attend some college but don’t get one, and the third who stop after high school — for becoming adult citizens. The same lack of vision that created the student loan crisis also created a situation when many working-class families can’t even consider college and often develop cultural resentments toward those who do.

A student loan fix is right, moral, and badly needed and yet doomed to fail in the long run without a grand bargain to essentially redefine the meaning of higher education for Americans after they turn 18. It means that boomers who were able to attend public universities for next to nothing (or free!) in the 1960s and ‘70s need to use their clout to bring back that notion of higher learning as a public good. But it also means free community college, free trade school, and other training opportunities for the millions who want fulfilling adult lives without going away to a university campus.

I’ve also argued in this column and in my book that the government should support a universal “gap year” of national civilian service for 18-year-olds, so they can start adulthood with hope instead of anxiety, focused on what Americans have in common rather than our increasingly bitter political and cultural divisions.

The red-state politicians, whose young voters would benefit greatly from this agenda, would fight it tooth and nail, insisting there’s no way America can afford this. They are wrong. There is no way America can afford not to do this. We have the money. We prove that every year when we spend hundreds of billions on increasingly useless weapons of war, or throw more money at policing tactics that fail to keep people safe. We could be spending that money on actual security — the security of a guaranteed future for our young people, without the pounding anxiety of debt, or working that extra job until the day you drop dead.

It took us decades to create such a warped mind-set that a lot of people no longer think twice about the utter insanity of a 73-year-old who can’t retire because of college loans — in debt to pay for what so clearly should be a public good. So we can’t fix this overnight. But 2022 would be a darned good time for Biden, Congress, and the generations that created this fiasco to start.

COLUMNIST’S NOTE: So how and why did we create such a mess? Please come back Tuesday for my weekly newsletter (you can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox — it’s easy and it’s free) as I write about the cosmic connection between today’s exorbitant college tuition and an unspeakable tragedy that occurred 52 years ago this week.

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