So it’s curious, then, that Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate minority leader, dismissed Biden’s sweeping student debt forgiveness. McConnell told reporters that the president’s move is “a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt, and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt.”
He is not alone in this sentiment against student loan forgiveness. Some people see suffering through repayment as a rite of passage, a pay-your-dues kind of ordeal. The basic argument is that forgiving the debt is unfair to people who have already gone through the suffering.
Fine, for the sake of argument, let us grant that it’s unfair, that it benefits the current generation of student debt holders more than the people who have already struggled through repaying loans. But even if it is unfair, it is still worth pursuing. A mass student loan forgiveness scheme is an essential policy correction to a worsening social crisis: These loans have strayed from their original purpose as a means of transcending a borrower’s circumstances to allow them entry into a comfortable middle-class life and have now become albatrosses around the necks of loanees who are barely treading water, working to repay what they owe with no hope of getting ahead.
I don’t need to recount for you the hundreds of stories from recent years of borrowers who are drowning under the weight of their debts. In each one, the trajectory is roughly the same: A young student thought that a college education would be their ticket to a successful career. They don’t want to be rich, they’d tell reporters. They just want a stable life, free of worry. They all end the same, too: underemployment, piling debt, regret, and uncertainty about what’s next.
What these stories gesture to is a larger failure: Sometime in this millennium, a college education stopped being a guarantee of a better life. This is repeated now matter-of-factly, but it’s a significant shift in the promises made to young people. If you carry student debt now, there’s a good chance you were sold the college dream only to find yourself in purgatory.
That’s not to say college has ceased being a door to better jobs altogether — just that the cost of the promise is so high that many people with good jobs on paper find themselves repaying student loans so expensive that they don’t reasonably have a chance to pay them off ever.