student debt

On Cancellation of Student Debt

By JT Haines — November 21, 2020

Student loan debt cancellation is a good idea, and we should do it. There’s too much of it, we’re in an economic crisis which is exacerbated by a global pandemic, and most importantly, it would really help people. Though we might also want to pump the brakes on the whole “you’re an asshole” thing if you have additional feelings about it, especially vis a vis those who have already paid their debt off. Hear me out.

First it should be said that, for most, having student loan debt isn’t really as much of a “choice” as it is the product of a system that has been bearing down on people for decades. The growing student loan debt burden in this country is compounded by a predatory lending system, an increasingly burdensome (for students) approach to higher education, and an economic system that is failing young people more and more just in general. As usual, this is especially true for Black people, who, according to Harpers Magazine (“Skin in the Game,” December 2020) “owe on average nearly 50% more in loans than their white peers.”

And the fact that we casually, with little debate, suspend fiscal “rules” to spend trillions on corporate economic bailouts and foreign wars is all the more reason to act boldly and urgently on student debt in the face of multiple interconnected crises.

But if we can help it, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to completely discount the people who’ve already paid off their debt — often as a function of privilege, yes, but also sometimes at great personal effort. Some folks, I’m sure, have prioritized student loan payments over things like buying a car, or a house, or even starting a family, and may rightly feel some personal sense of achievement in having done so.

I don’t know how many of those folks there are in the grand scheme of crushing debt in this country, but I do know they exist. And some may even have some feelings about it.

At this point, I’m guessing we need to address whether this is all just a thinly veiled assertation of my own feelings, or whether I myself have debt. So I’ll just tell you, yes, I do still have student debt, around $20,000. So does my spouse. Most of mine is from a public university, and I’ve been paying on it — sometimes quickly, sometimes not at all (depending on my employment status) — since 2000. Cancellation of any part of that debt would be welcome news, and would have a meaningful impact on our finances.

The fact that I still have debt though is, in my case, also the product of choice. In the face of a job market that I’ve always approached with a certain level of suspicion, I have typically prioritized savings (and employment flexibility) over paying down loans. And, having observed the growing bubble of now over $1.6T in student loan debt nationwide, I’ve also often wondered if we might see some changes to monetary policy that could impact my situation. And I’ll be very honest, that hasn’t not figured into my choices.

There is privilege in that as well. How many of us with student loans have the luxury of actually choosing how to approach it from a strictly fiscal perspective? I am aware of this. And maybe that’s a good enough reason to downplay my own choices in the larger conversation.

I also wonder though — do we really want to exclude from this conversation those who have made different and possibly very hard choices in the paying off of their own debts? Especially in light of the uncertainty about government policy which we can now assume is a factor we all should’ve been considering all along? I mean, maybe a lot of folks are focused only on the go forward, and good for them, but is it fair to demand this level of goodwill from this subset of people only?

All of which is to say, if we’re going to bail out student loan havers in any form, I think it would be fair to also include in consideration those who have — perhaps at great effort — paid off their own debt in the relatively recent past. Maybe such an inclusion applies to loans acquired and paid off in the past 20 years. Maybe it’s pro-rated in some way, or subject to certain requirements, or heck, even optional. Maybe it’s simple, or probably it’s not.

Either way, one thing we minimally shouldn’t do is call those people assholes for having thoughts about something that may have been dominating their personal financial choices for decades.

So, yes, let’s move forward with student deb relief. We’ve made a big mess, and there are all sorts of reasons to address it now. But perhaps we can also include in the conversation not only payoff date, but acquisition date too.

Finally, and as long as we’re having opinions about this, I think we can also be prepared to discount opposition from anyone who went to public university for $400 in the 60’s. Thanks for reading.

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).