No sooner had President Joe Biden announced his plan to give some student debt relief to qualifying borrowers was the action eviscerated from the left, right, and center of the political spectrum. It was too much, some argued. Not enough, others said. A broken campaign promise, or political pandering, depending on who complained. Regressive. Unfair. Incomplete. A giveaway.
The reality: Student debt relief is not only the first step of a campaign promise Biden is delivering on, if belatedly. It also is a first step toward what could be a more comprehensive plan to get the government out of the business of profiting off of the debt of predominantly mid- to lower-earning students and graduates. No American should be financially crippled by the decision to get an education to pave a path toward the American Dream.
As outlined in the first essay of my April Emancipator series on eliminating the racial wealth gap, student debt is rarely a good deal for any student. Collectively, student loan payments sap tens of billions of dollars from the budgets of Americans that could be used to invigorate the U.S. economy, start businesses, buy homes, invest and build a future. We only need to look at the pandemic-era pause in student loan payments, and the role it played in keeping Americans out of poverty and preventing the economy from collapsing.
But when it comes to Black and Brown borrowers, student loans are often a terrible deal, exacerbating the already-wide racial wealth gap. Students of color and their families tend to borrow more for college, resulting in the average Back college graduate owing $25,000 more in student loans than the average White graduate.
As I noted previously, the lowest-earners tend to take out the highest amount of student loans, so complete cancellation would not be regressive because it would benefit the lowest earners most. The windfall to high earners would be minimal because they are far less likely to hold high student debt balances. Biden’s executive action caps the relief by income level — $125,000 or less. That also directs this first step in student debt cancellation (more on that in a bit) to those who need it most.
Now, about this first step: Biden, as a political candidate, proposed full debt cancellation, starting with the executive action eliminating $10,000. While late – coming nearly two years into his administration — that start is a reality.
The rest, he cannot do by executive authority alone.
The U.S. Congress must act to fully eliminate student loan debt. This is one of several actions, including making public colleges tuition-free and holding private institutions accountable for perpetuating inequality while growing their own endowments to epic proportions. This would make the American Dream more accessible to everyone.
Of course, people can disagree about what is the best policy for evening the financial playing field in higher education, and about whether Biden’s plan is it. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all solution, and the debate about what policies work best is a healthy one. But what is most disconcerting to me is the rapid blowback based on the idea that forgiving the debt of some students and graduates, while others who have already paid student loan debt would not benefit from Biden’s action, is somehow unfair.
I am in that latter category. I’ve paid six figures in student loan debt during my adult life, and Biden’s policy does not impact me at all. But as I’ve written before, I know firsthand how the burden of student loans can place wealth creation so much farther from reach than from one’s peers. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else.
If we’re talking fairness, the reason so many people have already paid off their student loans or paid tuition outright without taking loans is because they could afford to. There is a reason why White parents pay, on average, three times as much of their children’s tuition or student loan payments as Black parents, giving their children a $17,000 wealth advantage right out of the gate on graduation day.
It’s because they can.
That’s the racial wealth gap in action. And that is what is unfair.