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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Canceling Student Loan Debt: Just Do It

There's no good reason not to.

November 17, 2020
 
 

There's been a robust debate on Twitter the last couple of days regarding the possible cancellation of government-held student loan debt.[1]

I want to carefully explain why I don't have any student loan debt so others may follow my example.

Here's the key: I went to college in 1988, when tuition at the University of Illinois was right around $2,100 per year. Also, my parents paid for it without much sweat, because in the grand scheme of things, $8,400 over four years was doable. In fact, my choice of a state university meant there was money left over to put central heating in our house. No more banging radiators in the winter. No more sweating through the summer, just in time for me to no longer live in the house.[2]

It's a scandal that we haven't kept our public higher education institutions at least this affordable in the intervening years. This abject failure has resulted in the accrual of a collective $1.7 trillion in debt.

I never had student loan debt because I was at the very tail end of the generation who went to college when tuition was reasonable. In fact, if I'd started four years earlier, my tuition would've been half as much. Perhaps those who are looking for affordable college could invent a time machine and return to the era when this was the case.

Here’s my stance on canceling debt: just do it.

Seriously, just do it. Do it. There’s no reason not to do it, so we should do it.

Do it.

The debates regarding the pros and cons of debt cancellation have been varied. Some say that cancellation isn't "progressive." (Depends on how you look at it, but I am convinced by this thread from former Elizabeth Warren adviser Bharat Ramamurti that it is plenty progressive.)

Others argue that it isn't an effective antipoverty program, which is true enough, but that’s because it isn’t an antipoverty program. We can and should also have antipoverty programs.

Do those, too.

Some worry that it's unfair to those who have managed to pay off their loan debt. Accepting this definition of "unfair" suggests we should never do anything helpful as long as others have been harmed in the past. That coronavirus vaccine we’re all so eager to see arrive? Unfair to people who have already died.

All of these arguments are fine and dandy as intellectual exercises if that's your kind of thing, but here's the reason why we should cancel student loan debt: it's the right thing to do.

We the people struck a bargain: if you work hard and get an education, whatever that education cost, you will be paid back in increased economic prosperity. For a couple of generations now, that deal has not been in place. Education has become a form of what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls "negative social insurance." Rather than being a ladder up, for many it has become an anchor holding them down. The high cost to individuals as documented by Sara Goldrick-Rab has resulted in even worse cascading effects for students who could not persist in their studies not because they couldn't hack it academically, but because they simply could not afford it.

Canceling the debt is a way of saying we screwed up, that we thought this would work, but it didn't. Our bad.

Characterizing it as a good-faith mistake is actually generous on my part. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the privatization of our public institutions was part of a deliberate effort to hobble them so that higher education would continue to be the province of the already elect, meaning not Black people.

The reason college has become so costly is because public money has been drained out of the system and replaced with tuition. We all know this. Canceling debt is merely making up for all those years of not using our tax dollars to fund our public institutions.

A good portion of the debt is also due to the practices of predatory for-profit institutions, which would have had very little room to maneuver had we kept up our public institutions so they could fulfill their missions all along.

You’re thinking how inefficient this system is, to have individuals run up trillions of dollars of debt to try to finance their educations, and every so often we just wipe the slate clean and start over, and you’re not wrong, which is why canceling debt by itself is not sufficient, but it’s a start.

(I've got a whole book on the other stuff we need to do to make our institutions sustainable. Maybe check it out for yourself.)

Some worry about the politics, but this is nothing to worry about. Republicans will oppose it because they oppose every act by the government that may make people’s lives better. They would oppose everything Biden does, so if that's the case, why not do something good that will help people? Can we not see through this charade by now? There’s no good reason to be concerned about the response of people who are incapable of acting in good faith.

Canceling debt is worth doing. It's in the power of the president to do it quickly, so that's what he should do.

It’s just a choice, a choice to act. It’s the right thing to do.

Just do it.


[1] The buzz is around President Biden knocking $50,000 off of everyone’s tally, rather than full cancellation.

[2] Not that I’m bitter, but the cooling method advocated by my father prior to the installation of the central heat and air was to “Lie real still and you can feel a breeze.”

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