President Biden made clear last month that he doesn’t intend to cancel more than $10,000 in student loan debt per borrower — a significantly smaller number than the $50,000 that other Democrats, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, are urging him to write off. Biden’s argument is simple: Any broad student debt cancellation policy would unnecessarily spend money on people who don’t need it, so why cancel “billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale,” as he put it, when the government could put that money to better use elsewhere?
Except it’s not that straightforward. While wiping out $10,000 would be meaningful for many people — roughly one-third of borrowers owe less than that — it’s not enough to stymie the racial inequities that student loans exacerbate in the long term. Over the last few decades, the ballooning student loan debt crisis has stifled wealth-building opportunities for Black people across the country, and it has helped to perpetuate a persistent and growing racial wealth gap. If Biden wants to reverse that trend, then he should start by canceling at least $50,000 for every borrower.
The reason that’s a more appropriate target than what the president is committing to is that Black borrowers tend to accumulate considerably more student debt than their white peers. Because the median Black household has significantly less wealth than the median white household, Black students are much more likely to take on debt, and large amounts of it, to attend school. And because of other existing racist structures — from predatory for-profit colleges that target Black students to racial wage gaps across industries that leave Black college graduates earning less money than their white counterparts — it only gets worse after taking out the first loan. Within four years of graduating, the average Black borrower has nearly $53,000 in student loan debt, while the average white borrower owes about $28,000.
These numbers indicate an emerging — and alarming — reality: Greater access to higher education is not serving Black people as well financially as it has white people. This should not come as a surprise; America keeps moving the goal posts when Black people gain more access to wealth-building opportunities, regardless of what they are.
The 1944 GI Bill promised American veterans benefits as reward for their military service, ranging from low-cost mortgages and loans to college tuition payments. And yet when Black people went on to serve in war, they returned home to find that they were denied the benefits of the bill. When the desegregation movement succeeded in allowing Black people to finally buy homes in the suburbs, resegregation, racist perceptions of Black neighborhoods, and decades of government neglect limited the appreciation of home values for Black owners — and in some cases, depreciated them. And after the US housing collapse following the Great Recession, Black homeownership rates hit record lows. The student debt crisis is just the latest example of Black people seeing the rug pulled from under their feet.
Much of the debate about student debt cancellation focuses on the notion that such a policy would benefit the rich. After all, college graduates — who own the vast majority of student debt — tend to earn higher wages than those who didn’t attend or complete school. But income and wealth aren’t the same thing, and while college graduates do earn higher incomes, they are less likely to be able to build wealth when they are anchored by student debt, especially if they are Black.
Opponents of a more generous student debt cancellation policy often point to the fact that, as government spending goes, this would not be the most stimulating for the economy. And they are correct — to a degree. While it won’t generate as much economic activity as more targeted government spending does, like unemployment insurance, it would encourage borrowers to partake in economic activity that they otherwise are holding back from, like buying a home. (And among those who have student debt, Black people are the most likely to postpone homeownership.)
It’s no secret that student debt cancellation will be a very expensive program; writing off $50,000 of debt per borrower would cost the government over $600 billion. But building a more equitable and just society is not cheap — there’s no way around that. In fact, canceling student debt is only one part of the solution to closing the racial wealth gap when it comes to higher education policy. To be effective, it should be coupled with other policies, like making college tuition-free so that this problem isn’t revisited a generation from now. (If other wealthy nations, like Norway or Denmark, can offer their citizens tuition-free college, then so too can the United States.)
With his COVID relief package, Biden has shown he understands the need for big government spending to build a stronger economy for all Americans. The student debt crisis is not where he should look for savings.
Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.