Rich-kid privilege incoming. Once again, the prospect of student debt forgiveness is on the policy table. Unfortunately, the major beneficiaries would be the people who need it least.
Americans have about $1.5 trillion in student debt, and those loans weigh heavily on the backs of those who have them. For some, the weight has been relatively light, and the cost of their college education can be managed by the family coffers or their own high-status job. For others, the burden has been much heavier, and the debt lingers like a disease that might never be cured.
As his inauguration nears, President-elect Joe Biden says he will start a program that forgives $10,000 worth of undergraduate or graduate student loan debt in exchange for every year of community service, capped at five years.
Others push for even more. Some senators are urging Biden to cancel $50,000 of student loan debt per person through executive action.
However, it’s not just the poor taking out loans. Students from families earning more than $114,000 a year borrow at the same rate as the lowest-income students — and they take out loans nearly twice as large. Students with advanced degrees — lawyers, doctors and others — account for 40% of all student debt.
And the top 25% of income-earning households hold almost half of student loan debt, according to the Urban Institute. Student forgiveness would largely be a hand up to the better off.
Sacrifices and smart choices paid off
As an Appalachian from one of the poorer regions of the country, that doesn’t sit well with me, though I have very little student debt.
I graduated from college in 2018. That's a sentence my father certainly supposed I’d never write. Growing up as a hill child with little career ambition, I even surprised myself. And when I finished high school in 2014, no one in my family was especially eager for me to attend a four-year institution.
In retrospect, I understand why that was the case. My sisters, eight and 10 years older than me, earned a couple of degrees in history and kinesiology, along with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. They had pursued their degrees in earnest, but by the time the train to university stopped for me, their careers had taken them into entirely different fields in which their four years weren't necessary. When it came my turn, Dad made it clear: Community college or nothing.
I fought it, of course. Teens are endlessly beguiled by the narrative they’re sold of the "college experience:" An unfettered and unsupervised social life in an intellectual haven that’ll deliver you from the mundane clutches of your hometown — and a price tag that can be waved away until you’re done with it all and working in your first lucrative job. Who can say no?
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Well, I did. At least, for a time. At the behest of my disgruntled dad and lacking a good argument for any other option, I went to the community college a hop and a skip down my Northeast Tennessee road. I always worked one or two part-time jobs to save money for what my parents promised me if I agreed to wait: Two final years of paid-for college. I spent my freshman and sophomore years flying through my courses, selling KJV Bibles and mopping the floors at the downtown Jewish bagel shop while supplementing my education with my own reading.
Two years later, I went to college at a private Christian school in Tennessee. My financially strapped parents kept their promise and paid my tuition. I paid for most of my other fees and expenses by working at a local coffee shop and on our school's newspaper. But, for me, college was by this time merely a bid to see the thing through to the end, because I had decided to be a reporter anyway — an occupation better taught through experience, as most journalists will tell you.
I graduated with a small student loan, an insignificant fraction of the loans my sisters had taken on years before. And in the end, my job as an opinion editor at Young Voices, a Washington, D.C.-based commentary shop, was one I got solely on the basis of my journalism experience with summer internships, not my degree — so my boss tells me.
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My story isn't unique, and, obviously, some jobs do require a degree. Even so, the prospect of substantial student debt forgiveness does a disservice to Americans who saw through the myth of a credential as the only way to economic achievement. While the average college graduate out earns the average high school-only graduate, there is actually substantial overlap, and many Americans with less formal education out earn college graduates.
Nearly a third of Americans, 28% of the population ages 25 and older, have completed only a high school education, according the U.S. Census Bureau. How many of them bought a truck and started a business rather than put that money toward a credential they didn't need?
Many of us didn’t need a degree from a prestigious university to get where we are, and we paid for what learning we got. I know a number of Appalachian kids who did the same.
Students like me might be relieved of our own small debts. But all of us, including my parents, will be paying the heavy debt of those walking the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. Those who decided to sign 10 years of their future paychecks away on the dotted line at the loan office shouldn’t get the most reprieve simply because they spent the most.
If anybody gets my help, it should be those who actually need it. Might I suggest the folks like those around here in the hills of Tennessee?
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Student loan debt forgiveness is a handout to wealthy families