The announcement that President Joe Biden will cancel up to $10,000 in student debt for individuals making under $125,000 with an additional $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients should be heralded as an enormous victory for progressives. Not only will it bring significant relief to millions of Americans; it is also a decisive example of policy-making that directly seeks to repair past mistakes.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which created the primary student loan system, he promised that the legislation “means the path of knowledge is open to all that have the determination to walk it. It means a way to deeper personal fulfillment, greater personal productivity, and increased personal reward.” The intent of the bill was to provide all Americans with access to higher education and to spur mobility. Unfortunately, it has played out rather differently. Today, Biden is acknowledging that Johnson’s decision to place the burden of financing of higher education on individuals was a blunder.
Making higher education available through personal debt was a failure that exacerbated inequalities and made it impossible for the system to serve as an engine of equality. Now that the error has been acknowledged, it’s time to make higher education a true public good with free-college legislation.
While student loans may have opened up access to higher education, they have not resulted in equitable outcomes. Students of color, especially Black students, often end up in a vicious cycle that reinforces generational inequality. Without family wealth to draw on, Black students take on more student debt to finance their education than their white counterparts and then graduate into a discriminatory job market where inequitable pay makes it harder for Black borrowers to pay down their loans. At every degree level, Black graduates earn less on average and thus have less money with which to pay back their loans. As a result, 12 years after starting school, the median Black borrower’s student loan balance has grown by about 14 percent, while the median white borrower has seen their loan decrease by between 35 and 40 percent.
Debt cancellation addresses the effects of these racial disparities. “At every point on the income and asset distributions,” researchers at the Roosevelt Institute found, “Black households would gain equally or more from cancellation relative to white households.” Moreover, contrary to claims that debt cancellation will primarily help the wealthy, research shows that it will reduce the debt-to-income ratio of those in the lowest income deciles the most significantly.
Biden’s action today sets an example for the kind of reparative action that progressives should take on a wide range of issues, from housing to the legacy of slavery. These policies offer a sharp contrast to the ahistorical approach taken by neoliberals over the past half-century—an approach characterized by a belief that we can all enter a market on equal footing despite the legacies of past injustices. Progressives insist that, as the effects of student debt illustrate, this is not possible.
But we also know that reparative policy is only a start. It’s not sufficient if the policy choices themselves are not reversed. Biden has made a clear statement about what we have gotten wrong in higher education policy. In doing so, he has made an implicit call for a new paradigm for higher education—one that moves away from individual financing toward public investment.
College today is more expensive than ever. Funding for public higher education has still not recovered from cuts that states made during the Great Recession. Institutions have been forced to turn to tuition to make up for the loss of public money. Federal grant support for low-income individuals has not kept up with these tuition increases. This combination has driven up debt levels over the past decade and a half. Cancellation will help correct for past mistakes, but moving forward requires a new system that understands higher education as a public good that reduces inequality and racial disparities while building a stronger democracy and economy.
Johnson celebrated access to higher education for opening the door to deeper personal fulfillment, productivity, and reward. Today, Biden took a step toward an approach to higher education that would focus not on the individual rewards but on the social and economic productivity it can generate for our whole society. To finish the job, we need a free-college policy.