What Joe Biden Gets Totally Wrong About Student Debt

What Joe Biden Gets Totally Wrong About Student Debt

What Joe Biden Gets Totally Wrong About Student Debt

The president’s resistance to canceling $50,000 in student debt is not about law or policy but about craven, misguided politics.


At a CNN town hall held earlier this week, President Joe Biden once again came out against student debt forgiveness. Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren have been pushing Biden to use executive action to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt from all borrowers, but when asked at the town hall, Biden said, “I will not make that happen.” Instead, he proposed canceling $10,000 of debt.

As a matter of policy, there’s no credible reason to be in favor of canceling $10,000 but not $50,000. Biden seemed to suggest that he might not have the “authority” to cancel $50,000, but it’s the exact same authority as the one under which he proposes to cancel $10,000.

The difference between $10,000 and $50,000 is not about law or policy but about politics. Biden and his team don’t like the optics of canceling a figure they’ve arbitrarily determined to be “a lot.” At the town hall, Biden explained it this way: He didn’t want to cancel debt from people who went to “Harvard, Yale, and Penn.”

I know it sounds good. Bashing Ivy League schools is always a cheap way to drum up anti-elitist energy, but here the laugh line is devoid of intellectual rigor.

Speaking as a Harvard grad, Biden can bite me. The man evidently has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to student debt. The reality is that schools like Harvard, Yale, and Penn graduate students with some of the least federal college debt in the country. The latest U.S. News ranking of lightest debt loads saw Princeton University come in third. Stanford was fifth. MIT was 11th. Yale and Harvard were 14th and 16th respectively. The average federal debt of a Harvard graduate is just under $14,000, and only 2 percent of Harvard students take out federal loans. Counterintuitively perhaps, $10,000 of federal loan forgiveness would be a windfall for Harvard grads and other graduates of elite institutions, and not be much good for a lot of other people. Biden needs to keep Harvard’s name out his mouth.

The reason elite universities tend to do better with debt are various and complicated. One obvious reason is that many students admitted to those schools come from families with the ability to pay. But it’s not the only reason. At Harvard, for instance, one in five students are from families making less than $65,000. Harvard has made college free for those kids. Elite private universities have enormous endowments (Harvard’s is $40 billion) and can offer generous financial aid packages far beyond a piddling government Pell Grant.

Moreover, to the extent that student debt forgiveness helps the Ivy League grads Biden apparently thinks are undeserving, that help will go disproportionately to graduates of color. That’s because student debt, like everything else in this country, hits Black and brown people harder. A 2016 Brookings Institute study found that Black students owe $7,400 more in debt than their white counterparts upon graduation, but that figure balloons to Black graduates owing $25,000 more debt than white graduates, tripling the gap between them, just four years after graduation.

It’s called interest. Nearly half of Black graduates owe more money on their federal loans four years after graduation than they did at graduation. Only 17 percent of white graduates are in that situation.

When Biden kicks dirt on Harvard and Yale and Penn, he’s trying to evoke the image of privileged kids with rich daddies getting a payout that they’ll use to buy more Gamestop stock. But his argument is either based in ignorance or extreme bad faith. Biden could have just looked at the list of colleges with the most indebted graduates, which U.S. News updated this week. Number one is Drexel University (which, not for nothing, is located in the heart of Philadelphia, a city Biden might want to remember delivered Pennsylvania to him in the last election). Maine Maritime Academy, Detroit Mercy, and Alabama State University round out the top four.

Does Biden have any snarky asides he’d like to make about canceling the student debt for merchant marines, who only have one of the most dangerous and toughest jobs in the country and graduated from the Maine academy with an average of $56,897 of debt? Is there some principled reason students graduating from an HBCU like Alabama State with $54,177 of debt are undeserving of $50,000 of student loan forgiveness?

Or maybe Biden has some shade for graduates of his alma mater, the University of Delaware? The typical debt load for those graduates is about $24,000, not one of the biggest offenders, but still a lot more than a Harvard or Yale graduate. Does Biden not want to risk cancelling the federal debt graduates of like the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, who also earned a BA, as well as a PhD, from that school? How is it possible that Biden thinks every person who owes more than $10,000 is a Winklevoss twin?

The astute reader will notice that I keep using the word “graduates.” That in itself is centering the problem on a bit of a fantasy. In reality, almost 40 percent of student borrowers don’t get their degree. That means that a lot of people have the increased debt load without the increased earning potential. And don’t even get me started on the people who borrowed heavily and got a functionally worthless degree from a diploma mill masquerading as an institution of higher learning.

Does Biden even know whom he’s excluding when he’s coming up with these proposals?

The answer might be “no.” The cost of college education has skyrocketed in recent decades. Student debt is a completely different thing now than when Biden was in school (he graduated from the University of Delaware in 1965) or even from when he was in the Senate. The national student debt was around $250 billion in 2004; now it’s $1.5 trillion. Add to that the fact that the Department of Education doesn’t track debt by race, and there’s an excellent chance Biden either doesn’t understand the scope of the problem or has an obsolete view of who bears the student debt burden in this country.

Schumer (Harvard ’71) and Warren (Harvard Law professor, 1995–2011) know. Instead of a false dichotomy between elites and whichever hardscrabble Scrantonites Biden thinks he’s talking to, Schumer and Warren understand that debt relief helps everybody… helps everybody. Debt relief, even for Ivy grads, is economic stimulus: People with less student debt are able to, you know, buy things on credit. Like houses. Debt relief also closes the racial wealth gap and is a boon to small business generation.

If Biden and his team have a principled reason for why it’s better to cancel $10,000 than $50,000, I’d be eager to listen to it. But as of now, his argument is not principled—it’s crap. It’s based on a fundamental mischaracterization of the problem, designed to actively mislead the people who will be most helped by relieving more money. Invoking Harvard (2020–21 tuition: $53,475), as a way to justify not giving money to people being crushed by debt coming out of Boston University (2020—21 tuition: $57,906) is just bad faith on stilts.

Student debt relief is a layup win that will help the people Biden claims to care about. Maybe instead of talking about this with his council of crusty economic advisers—who probably give their grandkids a check for ten bucks to go see a movie—he should just take a poll of the interns working in the White House. If he does, he might think about the young people drowning in debt all around him before flippantly dismissing a proposal to help them.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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