Today, Americans owe a total of $1.6 trillion in student debt.
According to a Stanford study, Americans born in the 1940’s had a 90% chance of being in better economic standing than their parents. For people born in the ‘80s, that figure dropped to just 50%. For members of Generation Z and Millennials, it's only getting worse.
Many Gen Z'ers have been told since birth that a college degree is the key to a stable life and a well-paying job. The unfortunate irony is that the burden of student debt so many take on in order to pay for college is contributing significantly to the economic downfall of this generation.
The American Dream says hard work and a little luck is all you need to get ahead. The student debt crisis proves this simply is not true.
Young people with student debt are significantly less likely to buy a home, get married or have children. Meanwhile, 84% of borrowers report their ability to save for retirement is inhibited by their student debt.
One-third of student debt holders are forced to skip other bills to make their loan payments.
One in fifteen borrowers has considered ending their own life because of the weight of their debt.
Millions of Americans are still struggling to pay off loans for a degree they did not complete.
This burden is also shared unequally along race and gender lines, with Black students having to borrow at significantly higher rates and women holding almost two-thirds of all student debt. Research has found these debt inequalities contribute to racial disparities in degree attainment and wealth.
More than 45 million Americans owe student debt. For these individuals — and for millions more to come, — it is time to finally address this national crisis by canceling student loan debt and making public colleges, universities and trade schools tuition-free.
President-Elect Joe Biden can make significant progress toward this goal within his first 100 days. Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called on Biden to cancel $50,000 of student debt per person via executive order; Biden himself has proposed cutting up to $10,000 from student debt-holders as a form of economic stimulus.
From the progressive wing of the Democratic Party comes bolder solutions. In the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proposed canceling all student debt in tandem with eliminating tuition and debt from public higher education entirely.
Economic modeling by the Levy Economics Institute projects that canceling student debt would add over $1 trillion to the economy over the course of the next decade, creating an annual 1.5 million jobs in its wake.
The recession caused by the pandemic further illustrates the practical nature of such a stimulus: if billions of dollars aren’t being sucked away by student loans, there’s much more money free to circulate local economies.
The human benefit of this policy is immeasurable. Freeing people from the burden of debt allows them to take more risks, start businesses, pursue passions, raise families and just live more wholly human lives. Alleviating financial stress would decrease the suicides that have been associated with student debt, while also decreasing food and housing insecurity.
Still, there are several common criticisms leveling the policy of student debt cancelation.
The first is its price tag. A Sanders-style plan for total student debt cancelation combined with tuition-free higher public education would cost an estimated $2.2 trillion.
But there are several ways to finance such a plan. Sen. Sanders, for example, proposes a tax on Wall Street speculation — similar to those found in several other countries — which would raise a projected $2.4 trillion over the course of just a decade.
A wealth tax on the uber-rich or a value-added tax on mega-corporations like Amazon, Google and Facebook are other possible avenues, not to mention the increased government revenue that would come naturally from the economic aftereffects of student debt cancelation.
It is also important to put this $2.2 trillion in the context of overall government spending. By comparison, the Trump administration has given out $2.3 trillion in corporate tax cuts, and in 2008 the federal government bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $1 trillion. Since 2001, the United States has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia — in fact, the military budget has cost Americans a whopping $13.34 trillion just in the last 20 years.
The point is that the money is there. The real question is whether our politicians can muster the same political courage for their constituents as they do for Wall Street and military contractors. As Sanders' Senior Adviser Chuck Rocha put it, “...if we can bail out Wall Street, we can bail out kids trying to make a better life for themselves.”
The second criticism of such a plan often targets a perceived unfairness to those that have already paid back their loans. While this instinct is perhaps understandable, its logic falls flat. If reforming a bad system is unfair to those that have already endured it, does that mean we should never improve anything? Many Americans have had to struggle and sacrifice to pay off their student loans: why not make sure fewer people feel this burden in the future?
Student debt cancelation cannot exist in a vacuum. Making public higher education tuition-free is necessary to ensure such a crisis does not occur again. Cutting down on what has become an exorbitantly expensive college system — largely due to administrative costs — is also essential.
The student debt crisis gives way to bigger questions about our priorities as a society. Access to higher education should not be a commodity in the richest democracy in the history of the world — we should want people to go to school and make it easy for them to do so.
We have the means to fix this problem plaguing millions of Americans. Do our leaders have the will?
Claire Sullivan is an 18-year-old coastal environmental science freshman from Southbury, CT.