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Making student debt relief stick

Solving the current crisis isn’t enough. We have to prevent the next one.

About 45 million Americans owe $1.6 trillion in student loans.Drew Angerer/Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty

Canceling student debt is the easy part.

The bigger question is, how are we going to fix it so that we’re not right back here in a few years, with millions more crushed by the next and following waves of college loans?

Easy is a relative term, of course, when it comes to dealing with this crisis. We’re in a major pickle here. About 45 million Americans owe $1.6 trillion in student loans. One in 10 of them are in default, and those who are struggling are disproportionately Black and brown.

All of that debt impairs so much in our national life: It amplifies inequality. It keeps young adults from starting families, saving down payments for houses, and building wealth. It ruins credit ratings and thwarts social mobility. That’s bad for everyone. We have to do something.


The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic has brought the crisis into focus, and seems to have built the will to do what might have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. A bunch of Democrats, backed by solid research, are suggesting we go big here, urging the Biden administration to forgive up to $50,000 per borrower to goose the recovery now and transform millions of lives for good. Biden doubts his legal power to lift more than $10,000 off people’s shoulders — though even that modest-sounding gesture would liberate 15 million borrowers according to New America, a nonpartisan think tank. Recent polling shows majority support for forgiving $50,000 for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year, which seems a sensible cutoff.

Still, it will take a miracle to make going that big a reality, given the up-by-the-bootstraps dogma that still has hold in much of this country. Never mind that the cost of college — today’s bazillion-dollar bootstraps — was so much lower when many congressional Republicans and other pontificators were coming up.


But even if it did happen, which would be spectacular, we would still be right back here before long. Because wiping out existing debts does little to fix what got us here in the first place. College costs have reached criminal heights in this country. Back in the 1970s, the average price of an education at a private four-year college was just a few thousand dollars per year; now it’s about $50,000 per year, an increase that has far outstripped inflation.

Back then, higher education was seen as public good, worth the investment because it benefits us all, said Thomas Shapiro, a professor of law and public policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Once those institutions opened up more to women and students of color, however, that commitment wavered.

Federal and state governments decided higher education wasn’t all that important any more, slashing funding to schools which then felt forced to jack up tuition rates. Meantime, Pell grants and other types of assistance stagnated. Which meant more, and bigger, loans for students increasingly unable to come up with the stupid amounts of money now required each year, even at public universities — loans that amount to “wealth extraction” and deepened racial inequality, Shapiro said.

If we don’t fix that, Shapiro said, “we will be back here again,” reaching the next crisis point faster than the decades it took us to get to this one. What’s the worth of releasing somebody from massive debt if their kids will have to take on a like burden?


What we need to do to avoid that makes $50,000 loan forgiveness look easy: a return to the notion of higher education as a common good, and federal funding to match that commitment; accessible public universities that are sufficiently well-funded to give private schools serious competition; better and more efficient financial aid, including Pell grants that make a proper dent in tuition; and free community colleges for those who need them, to make those schools the first rung they were always meant to be.

“That is a hard pull,” Shapiro conceded.

But the pandemic has made it clearer than ever that we’re all in it together. Many more of us are conscious of our connections — and commitments — to each other these days. Who could have imagined, just a year or two ago, that so many would be open to the idea of wiping out debts for millions of people?

Why not aim even higher than that?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.