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OPINION

Student loan forgiveness is a savvy political move — and the right thing to do

Americans carry more than $1 trillion in college debt. It’s time for Biden to lift some of that burden.

A Student Loan Forgiveness rally near the White House on Wednesday.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

President Biden may soon enact some form of college debt forgiveness to alleviate a financial burden that affects about 43 million people. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah called such a move “desperate.”

“Desperate polls call for desperate measures: Dems consider forgiving trillions in student loans,” Romney tweeted. “Other bribe suggestions: Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages? And put a wealth tax on the super-rich to pay for it all. What could possibly go wrong?”

Romney is lying. Biden isn’t considering forgiving trillions. (If only.) And what’s wrong here is that one of the wealthiest members of Congress doesn’t understand the meaning of “desperate.” For millions crippled by college debt, “desperate” means delaying plans to buy a home or start a family. It’s how it feels to have your post-college financial life held hostage for years, even decades.

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And “desperate” describes Romney and his fellow Republicans who are so eager to grab control of both houses of Congress that they’re willing to punish their own constituents.

With only six months until the midterm elections, Biden and Democrats could certainly use a boost. For all his administration has accomplished — from signing into law his much touted infrastructure bill to the COVID-19 relief in the American Rescue Plan — Biden’s presidency is nonetheless weighed down by promises unkept. Bills he supported for police reform and restoring voting rights stalled, as expected, in the Senate. His poll numbers are sagging.

In particular, Biden is struggling with young people. That, his critics say, is why he’s floating the idea of loan forgiveness. They may be right. But whatever Biden’s political motives, easing the staggering load of $1.7 trillion in college debt is also the right thing to do.

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Since Biden’s inauguration, Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley, both of Massachusetts, have been pushing for loan forgiveness. Pressley has spoken about the “anxiety and trauma” she felt after she defaulted on her own student loans (now paid off) and rightly frames debt forgiveness as a matter of racial and economic justice. On average, Black people owe considerably more and take longer to pay off loans than their white counterparts, which further deepens this nation’s insidious racial wealth gap.

As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to “immediately cancel a minimum of $10,000 of student debt per person.” An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York calculated that such a plan would require the government to write off about $321 billion in loans.

Biden has yet to act on his pledge, although last month he extended for the fourth time a pandemic pause on federal student loan payments. It is now scheduled to end on Aug. 31. At a recent press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “would make a decision about any cancellation of student debt before the conclusion of that pause on student loans.”

It took me 12 years to pay off my loans. Compared with what today’s graduates owe — an average of about $30,000, according to US News & World Report — my debt wasn’t massive, but I still struggled to keep up. An unexpected repair on my seven-year-old Oldsmobile usually meant a late loan payment or three. My life was defined by thick payment books with dates so far into the future they might as well have been science fiction novels.

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Somehow I never defaulted. When the loan was finally paid off, I framed the letter from the bank. It’s gone now, but nearly 30 years later what remains is a near-pathological fear of debt and a profound belief that no one who wants a college education should be pushed to the edge of financial ruin trying to get one.

This nation finds money for everything except actions that can definitively improve American lives. The same Republicans who balk at loan forgiveness had no issue with former president Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax break for the wealthy. A Wall Street Journal editorial referred to loan forgiveness as “student-loan reparations.” That’s not a racist dog whistle; that’s a foghorn.

This time, the GOP can’t stop Biden. But they’ll probably brand whatever plan he announces as “woke” and hope their base laps it up. And as the COVID pandemic has proved, too many in this country don’t care about the betterment of lives other than their own.

Biden has reiterated that he is “not considering $50,000 debt reduction but I am in the process of taking a hard look” at some amount of student loan forgiveness. During a meeting with the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, Biden reportedly told lawmakers that he has personal experience with student loans. He recently made the last payment on college debt owed by his late son, Beau.

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When the younger Biden died at 46 in 2015, he had been out of school for 20 years and was still paying off his student loans. It’s time for Biden to lift for millions some of the same financial weight that his son carried to his grave.



Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.