Opinion | America Turned the Greatest Vehicle of Social Mobility Into a Debt Machine (2022)

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Tressie McMillan Cottom

Opinion | America Turned the Greatest Vehicle of Social Mobility Into a Debt Machine (1)

By Tressie McMillan Cottom

Opinion Columnist

If it weren’t for all of the Black women students milling about, Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., would be the picture of Hollywood’s idea of a small liberal arts college. The red-brick architecture anchors a manicured quad. Wide footpaths crisscross the small but tidy commons.

And then a brick wall announces a boundary not quite breached by the surrounding area’s racial segregation and economic precarity. But it is a half wall, one on which you can sit and stare outside the bubble toward the reality from which students arrive. As metaphors go, it is a strong one: Black colleges like Bennett cannot afford to build a wall so high that the world does not intrude.

I recently visited Bennett just ahead of news that the Rolling Jubilee Fund — a project of the Debt Collective, a national union of debtors that purchases portfolios of debt in order to erase them — would be canceling all past-due tuition bills in collection. For Bennett College, that amounts to just over $1.76 million. For an idea of the scale of that forgiveness, consider that the median university endowment in 2021 was $200 million. Bennett’s endowment is around just $15 million. Active since 2012, the Rolling Jubilee’s debt erasure program goes a long way for institutions with paltry endowments that serve minority students with a lot of financial need.

When I strolled the yard recently, I knew that many Bennett students would be getting a letter freeing them of the debt that weighed them down and made it hard to live up to the promise of a college education. The biggest deal is not the cash that forgiveness might free up and which could be spent on rising housing costs or used to pad their savings. The Bennett leaders I spoke with say the most tangible benefit is that students who owe the college money can now get access to their academic transcripts, proving that they have in fact attended school. As a lot of students learn the hard way, an account balance means no transcripts. The real world always exists on campus if you know how to see it.

The Biden administration is now considering giving more former college students a version of the relief that the Bennett students are experiencing: debt forgiveness. A lot of people worry that debt forgiveness will spur inflation. They tsk-tsk about what it will say to people about personal responsibility. And they worry about the optics of forgiving people who partied for four years and did beer pong in the quad and blew through their parents’ credit card limits on spring break.

Those are worries of an out-of-touch chattering class. No one drank enough beer in college for the last 30 years to deserve a student loan balance that increases even as the debtor attempts to pay down the principal. The message that some people don’t deserve debt relief is a politics of grievance. If you cannot craft a political message that acknowledges that we turned the greatest vehicle of social mobility into a debt machine, then you are not good at messaging.

This is the right message: We messed up. Our bad. Make it right. Cancel the debt.

Too many Americans believe college and the real world are distinct spheres. Like scriptwriters, we collectively draw a picture of what college looks like: residential, maybe a big state school or a small private elite school. Professors are generally male and erudite. And the students are young, diverse, able-bodied. We imagine the college years as a holding pattern, a liminal space between family home and the pressures of jobs and bills. Yet today most students have more in common with Bennett Belles than the idealized college student. Because we do not make that clear to Americans, our debates about who should pay for college — and at what social expense — are stuck in the 1950s.

Opinion Debate Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?

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Being stuck in higher education’s affordable glory days does not prepare us to debate the reality of college today. Not only has the price of college skyrocketed but students have changed. The student debt crisis is not a crisis because of the absolute $1.7 trillion owed but because of the relative disadvantage of those who hold the debt.

Today’s typical college students are what we would have once called “nontraditional.” That means they are parents, caregivers, or working adults. They are also less likely to be male and white and middle class than they were a generation ago. Borrowers may incur their debt when they are young adults but the debt follows them well into middle age. People ages 25 to 49 are responsible for the majority of all student debt.

Even the students who are straight-from-high-school are not like the teenagers of yore. They are carrying the burdens of complicated lives. They help their parents avoid eviction, their cousins with their schoolwork, and their elders with health care forms. College for them is not a timeout from real life.

When the student body changed, it became easier to change Americans’ minds about who should pay for college. I have talked with Brian Powell and Natasha Quadlin about their book, “Who Should Pay?,” which is based on a survey of Americans’ attitudes about the right mix of responsibility for college costs. According to Quadlin and Powell, voters generally agree that saddling students with debt for college is un-American and unfair.

The real divide is between ways of thinking about collective responsibility. Older Americans and some conservatives think that families should pick up the tab. Younger Americans and some liberals think that the government should step in to unburden students. Family or the state is the crux of the issue. Whom you determine to be responsible probably influences your opinion on whether we should forgive student loan debt for millions of Americans.

The Biden administration is willing to play ball on debt forgiveness after sidelining it just a year ago. With midterms around the corner, forgiving “some debt,” as President Biden cautiously describes his current position, could energize part of the Democratic base. Economists and policymakers are gearing up to explain, as Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, recently implied, that this is a horrible idea for the Democrats. Forgiving debt for a bunch of overeducated namby-pamby voters, the thinking goes, reinforces the notion that Democrats give handouts, a sure turnoff for real working-class voters who, presumably, despise arugula and the educated classes who eat it.

Begala’s caricature of the views of working-class people obscures who they are in order to score cynical political points. If you talk with Powell and Quadlin, you learn that working-class people are sending their kids to college by pulling extra shifts and putting their kids and grandkids’ names on Sunday prayer lists when they earn a partial book scholarship to the local campus of the state school.

Working-class families are the base of institutions like Bennett College, where, for generations, daughters, aunts and nieces have carefully packed in their suitcases dreams of higher education. They arrive at college focused on not only changing their lives but their family’s fortunes. Anthony Jack’s “The Privileged Poor” features interviews with working-class students at elite institutions who work in cafeterias and send scholarship money back home to help support their families. Working-class people are in every sector of higher education because they believe in its promise. And they have the debt to prove it.

The working class so believed in higher education’s promise that they didn’t waver even as tuition prices rose year after year. They believed it when guidance counselors and politicians told them that going to college was the single most important thing that they could do for themselves and for their children. They believed the financial gurus who told them that theirs was “good debt,” the kind that would pay for itself in guaranteed higher wages from good jobs waiting for them upon graduation.

They believed so much that when one degree was not enough to pay off the debt, millions took on additional debt for more degrees. Reasonable people made decisions based on the available information at the time and all information from trusted sources pointed to “borrow.”

If you did not want to borrow, the cost of college narrowed your practical choices. You could attend a community college, join the military, be born to a wealthy family or not go to school at all. No matter your personal feelings about any of those choices, there were a lot of social norms about their relative value. We look down on community college education as unsuitable for the kind of high-wage, white-collar work that comes with prestige in our economy. And, in case you had not noticed, the United States has been engaged in military conflict somewhere in the world for much of these students’ lifetimes. That left two choices, only one of them practical: Don’t go to college at all. But the incentives to go are too numerous to make this a good choice for most people. That created a perverse set of incentives.

You can be forgiven for not knowing that the “go to college” refrain would have a darker side. But we should not forgive those who knew better. Policymakers knew by the 2010s that the train was going off the rails. For-profit colleges were preying on women like those who might have ended up at Bennett College. As the sociologist Louise Seamster told me on “The Ezra Klein Show,” they knew that Black debtors would likely never earn enough to pay off their college debt. They knew that poor immigrant and first-generation Black and Hispanic students were turning to their elderly parents and grandparents to co-sign for loans. We knew that Social Security checks would end up garnished as a result, throwing thousands of elderly people into the very poverty that the program was designed to prevent.

We knew that some people racked up six-figure debt for fancy law firm or medical jobs but that those with more than $200,000 in debt made up 2 percent of all borrowers. We knew that we had incentivized bad actors in the student loan servicing market. We knew that student loan debt was most expensive for the families who had the most to lose. And we kept offering the loans with the same cheerful promise: It’s worth it.

When you are scammed by a friend, it is a shame. When your country scams you, it is a fraud.

Those cautioning “go small and slow” on debt forgiveness — whether they did not rely on student loans because they were wealthy or they went to college when one could pay tuition working part-time jobs — resemble the people who make higher education policy who are suspicious of forgiveness because it smacks of government handouts. Their impulse is to tinker at the edges of the quicksand drowning many of their core constituents. Or, at their most generous, they will consider meager debt forgiveness with means-testing.

Means-testing is a way to measure for deservingness and it is the wrong ax for this woodpile. First, it is a bureaucratic mess, if it is even possible. The I.R.S. and the Department of Education don’t seem able to coordinate on verifying income to qualify those who pass the means-testing. There is also the issue of means-testing working as regressive. Social science has shown that means-testing is a roadblock for people who need relief the most. If you want to help the working-class people who carry debt, make it easy to cancel.

Means-testing is also just the wrong solution for this problem. The student loan debt crisis we created is a recent invention. We are not forgiving the debt because it makes us feel bad. We are forgiving this debt because, as designed, it negates the value of education. This debt crisis is the outcome of a set of foreseeable market forces and policy decisions. Every student who took on debt under those conditions did so under circumstances that made it impossible to make better choices. No one, not even graduates who now earn a lot of money, deserved odds as bad as the ones we created.

The people making the rules did not talk straight with the American people about what college debt would actually cost, how it would work, and what it would mean for economic mobility. Year after year, campaign after campaign, the people in charge of the train looked us dead in the eyes and told us it was on the tracks.

Biden prides himself on being a straight shooter, a man of the people who does not shy away from tough conversations. When you make a mistake in the real world, where families can be tough but loving and bullies do exist, you do not double-down on them. You look the people you have harmed in the eyes, and you ask their forgiveness. Then you make it right.

The time for debating student debt’s political messaging is over. Anything less than across-the-board forgiveness extends the life of the mess we made. Student loan debt is an albatross around the Democrats’ neck. Kicking the can down the road is throwing good political capital after bad.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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