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Capitol Punishments: Relief from big debts and small minds

Our vision for higher education needs to look beyond the crabs-in-a-barrel discourse on student loans.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Our vision for higher education needs to look beyond the crabs-in-a-barrel discourse on student loans.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

The discourse that followed President Joe Biden’s student debt announcement on Wednesday shows how many politicians and pundits have no idea who has student debt, which jobs require bachelor’s degrees, and how little those jobs pay.

In case you missed the details in all the hysteria, individuals who earn less than $125,000 ($250,000 for a couple) qualify to have $10,000 forgiven. Individuals who received Pell Grants while in college—which meant that their families were low-income—will have $20,000 forgiven.

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Full disclosure: I will benefit from Biden’s plan. Because like millions of Americans, I too have a college degree and have never earned anything close to $125,000 per year. So to hear people whose livelihoods were not affected by the pandemic but somehow had their six- or seven- figure Payment Protection Program loans forgiven say that student loan forgiveness is unfair to the working class… 

While the White House’s Twitter thread in response is a thing to behold, the discourse is a reminder that so much of the chattering class—politicians, pundits, really anyone who feels they have a right to serve up opinions divorced from research or reality—love to invoke the working class for their political and rhetorical ends, but they don’t know or listen to actual working-class people.

The reason the White House landed on $10,000 in relief is because many people with smaller balances are college dropouts. People drop out for a variety of reasons: health, family, finances, or just the fact that college doesn’t work for everyone. But that means they don’t have the earning power of a degree and are still saddled with that debt. 

Maybe they landed a job in one of those trades that conservatives love to point to as Exhibit A for why student debt is the student’s fault, because they should’ve chosen a trade instead of going to college. But with the disappearance of apprenticeships and on-the-job training, how do they think those people became qualified for those jobs? 

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Let’s go a little further back and really talk about “fairness.” We’ve all been regaled with tales of how the Baby Boom generation paid their college tuition with a summer job or part-time work during the school year, but Boomers fail to realize that that is not mathematically possible anymore. They’re even less inclined to talk about why. 

I grew up in suburban Kansas City in the ’90s, where all of the adults in our lives asked where we would go to college, not if. The ethos was that if you got a degree, you would get a job, and your whole future would be set. And to be fair, long-term studies have found that people with college degrees have greater career and income stability.

But state funding for colleges peaked in 2001, right when my generation was enrolling. So we had to borrow more, but again, the adults around us told us it was an investment and that after graduating we would easily be able to get a job that would enable us to pay it off. 

I graduated in 2007. You know what happened next. And how, after that, wages remained low as the cost of living continued to grow. There was relief for banks, car companies, and other businesses, but where was the relief for young people whose careers and incomes were stunted by a once-in-a-lifetime recession? We can ask the same question about the pandemic. 

The inequity of this system was even worse for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students, who were targeted by for-profit colleges and predatory lenders. Higher education was sold to them as a ticket to the middle class, but research has found that the racial wealth gap is even wider among student loan borrowers and has exacerbated income inequality.

There’s also the bigger question of why we’re allowing cost to get in the way of higher education. If someone wants to become a tradesman, they should absolutely be able to access that training. But not everyone can or should do those jobs. The reason plumbers and electricians make good money these days is because not as many people have entered those professions; if Gen Alpha decided to go all-in on those jobs, their value would decrease.

So it benefits everyone when people can access the level of education they need for the job they want. For some jobs, you need a Bachelor’s; for others, you need a Master’s or a Ph.D. Or, in my case, after getting my Bachelor’s and working for a few years, I went through a life/career transition and took some community college classes to figure out my next steps. 

And for those grumbling about their tax dollars going toward student debt relief: I would love for more of my tax dollars to go toward higher education (or just education in general) so no one has to go through what I and millions of others have been through. Every career decision has been weighed with my loans as a factor. There were opportunities I didn’t even consider applying for because they weren’t financially feasible. 

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The last few years, my income has stabilized enough that I continued payments through the pandemic and even after a layoff. The payments were small and the interest low, so it hasn’t felt like a burden. But with $10,000 forgiven, I could be free from my loans within a year. The thought alone makes me feel lighter. 

But more broadly, framing higher education as solely a means to acquire a job really limits what these institutions could do for individuals and communities. People should be able to take classes to enrich their lives, whether it’s through learning a new skill, exploring how the world works, understanding how it came to be, or fostering their own creativity. Colleges can and should be venues for people to meet and connect with others, build community, and find meaning, even joy.

Biden’s plan goes beyond debt relief and sets terms to make it easier for borrowers to make payments going forward. But I want us as a society to go even further by imagining what our higher education systems could be and what human potential they could unlock. 

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