Student Loan Forgiveness

A lot of hay has been made recently about the issue of student loan debt forgiveness. The total debt, the delayed economic power, the cost of college now vs then (any “then” really), and the cost of living now vs then (same). All of that is now painfully apparent. Anyone denying the social and economic effects of student loans at this point is living in the past, something that I, as a historian, am quick to point out for its faultiness.

Discussions over the crippling and servile nature of student loan debt are not the concern of this piece. More than enough has been written there and anyone reading this is likely familiar with the stories, the arguments, and the facts.

In recent weeks the conversation over student loans and loan forgiveness was reinvigorated on Twitter. Damon Linker – “contributing editor for the New Republic and is a Senior Writing Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania,” neoliberal provocateur, and Guy-On-The-Internet – Tweeted: “I think Dems are wildly underestimating the intensity of anger college loan cancelation is going to provoke. Those with college debt will be thrilled, of course. But lots and lots of people who didn’t go to college or who worked to pay off their debts? Gonna be bad.”

It had been awhile since someone had such a poor take on the student loan crisis and the Twitterverse responded, ratio-ing the take into Twitter infamy.

I feel as though I am overly-qualified to weigh in on this issue. Currently, I sit here with about $45-50k in student loan debt (I’m extremely fortunate that all of mine is from undergrad; I did not have to take out any additional loans for my Master’s or my Doctorate). None of that figure has been paid off. TA stipends being what they are, I was able to make enough money to pay bills and live. Paying off loans? 100% out of the question. I haven’t taken any time off since 2008 when I started college, so my loans have been in deferment since then, slowly but deliberately collecting interest.

Additionally, I have been heavily involved in higher education in recent years, specifically regarding graduate and professional school. I am about to wrap up my tenure as the President & CEO of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), currently the largest graduate and professional student organization in the country. While I have not by any means surveyed the entirely of our membership – dozens of universities representing hundreds of thousands of students – and I do not speak on behalf of NAGPS in this statement, only myself, I feel like I can respond to Mr. Linker’s statement:

What the hell are you talking about?

If there is seemingly no basis for his assertion, that’s because there isn’t. This opinion masquerading as potential fact is pulled out of the same place where many hot takes from (I’ll give you a hint; it smells like shit). While widespread data demonstrating how people feel about this does not exist to my knowledge, having been immersed so deeply in higher education – specifically graduate education – for the last few years, I am struggling to come up with a single person in this position who feels this way.

Why is that? I can, if I turn myself completely into an asshole, begin to understand conceptually where he is coming from. If you had to endure a hardship to reach your goal and then the door is opened for others, I can see that…for all of a second.

Paying for college is not the same as having to go through appropriate and logical steps in a process. Forgiving over a trillion of dollars of crippling debt is not the same as, let’s say, getting rid of papers or tests. Papers and tests, while surely rife with problems in their current iterations and applications, are necessary for education. Assessment of comprehension, not of people, is important and there is no getting around that.

Forgiving student loan debt is more like getting rid of doctoral qualifying exams. You will not find many people more critical of DQEs that yours truly. I loathe them. They are a remnant of institutional hazing, an anachronism from a time when everyone with a PhD was going into a tenure track job, back when there were tenure track jobs. They serve no purpose but to cause stress; hoop-jumping for the sake it.

I took DQEs; I was in the last cohort in my department to do so. I have absolutely no ill-will towards the department for canceling them now and none towards the students who no longer have to bear that burden. In point of fact, I am elated. It was a bad system and it should die a painful death.

Student loans are the same. You had to pay off your loans. It took you a long time. It ruined your life. It delayed buying a car, getting a house starting a family. It kept you in a dead-end job that didn’t pay enough, a cycle of underemployment that you endured only because you needed to keep the lights on. Your life was put on hold and many of the bookmarks, the checkpoints of life, and you feel as though you made a tremendous all for nothing.

You really wish that on another person?

Linker’s opinion exists only in a mind devoid of empathy, of sympathy, in a world capitalistic competition where anyone who gains does so at your expense, and where jealousy is the most prominent and prevalent of traits, a Randian nightmare. If you are unable to feel joy for other people, relief for the burden that they no longer have, then I have nothing to say to you other than this:

I am deeply sorry for whoever or whatever hurt you to make you feel this way.

Forgiving student loan debt is not forgiving student borrowers for making a “bad business decision” as some would put it. Rather, it is the first step in a lengthy trek towards righting the criminal wrong that we afflict onto people, whose only crimes were pursuing knowledge, striving for that American Ideal.

The crime wasn’t borrowing money for college; the crimes were making college cost so much (if anything at all) and the extortion that made it so profitable.

This isn’t favoritism. It’s equality. This isn’t unfair. It’s a long-overdue correction. Forgiving student loan debt is to admit that the system was never fair to begin with, and getting rid of it is the morally and ethically right thing to do.