On Monday, Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal and Bernie Sanders introduced the College for All Act of 2019. This groundbreaking piece of legislation would cancel all student debt and usher in an era of free college at all public two- and four-year institutions, paid for by a tax on Wall Street.
In less than a decade, grassroots organizers and the worst-off student debtors have pushed the twin issues of student loan cancellation and free education from the margins to the mainstream. Instead of droning on about interest rate tweaks or tuition freezes, some Democrats are finally talking about erasing loans and eliminating fees, acknowledging education as a human right instead of treating it as a commodity. Thanks to the efforts of regular people who decided to fight, we’re now witnessing a massive shift in public opinion and political possibility.
Many countries take such policies for granted, but in the US winning free education will require a struggle of epic proportions. Sadly, the pushback won’t come just from those Republicans who want to see all institutions of learning privatized and citizens kept in the dark. It will also come from concern-trolling centrist liberals, who are already busy sounding the alarm that it would be unfair to cancel all student loans and treat education as a universal public good because some affluent people might benefit. As Third Way, a centrist and Wall Street-funded thinktank, tweeted on Monday: “Free college for all IS regressive. Blanket debt relief could increase inequality.”
Faced with formerly radical positions – a full debt jubilee and free college – becoming popular, centrists are on the defensive and pushing for partial relief as a compromise.
The Debt Collective, an economic justice group that has spent the last eight years fighting for free education and the abolition of student loans (disclosure: a group I organize with), went to Washington to endorse the Act. Debt Collective member Pamela Hunt, a single mother who owes over $200,000 in student loans, spoke at the press conference.
“I came to Washington in 2015 as one of the first student debt strikers in US history. We organized for years and, as a result, some debtors won relief although I haven’t,” Hunt said. “Over the last four and a half years, I have struggled financially due to my student debt burden. I lost my home and nearly lost my life in a fight against cancer. But you know what I haven’t lost? These illegitimate and immoral student loans that are still haunting me.”
She added: “I am not asking for forgiveness. I am seeking justice. The only justice is full debt cancellation.”
The Debt Collective team cheered as Hunt spoke. We’ve seen firsthand the way poor people get crushed by our profit-driven, debt-for-education system. Our members are mainly working-class people – disproportionately people of color and women – struggling to keep a roof over their heads and feed themselves and their families because of their student debt. In other words, they are your average student debtors.
In April, Senator Elizabeth boldly took the lead on this issue by promoting a policy that would cancel up to $50,000 in student loans based on income. Her proposal represented progress, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Under such a plan, many of Debt Collective’s members would still be trapped in the red. “Partial debt forgiveness won’t cut it,” Hunt said. “Even erasing $50,000 would still leave me with a balance of $162,000 in student debt.”
She’s hardly alone. When Debt Collective co-director Laura Hanna asked our members how many people had balances exceeding $50,000 she was flooded by sums people have no hopes of ever repaying. Research backs this up: 17 percent of all student borrowers owe $50,000 or more on their student loans. This includes a growing number of parents who’ve taken out loans (called Parent Plus) to finance their children’s education.
Justice demands a full student debt jubilee and free higher education for all, regardless of income. “The overwhelming majority of the people who will benefit from this legislation are working class people,” Sanders said at the press conference – and he’s right.
As others have pointed out, there are no billionaires walking around with student debt. Student debt is already deeply regressive. Or, to put it another way: Student debt cancellation is already means tested, because people of means don’t need relief. The children of the truly wealthy are not teetering on the brink of default, because they don’t need to mortgage their futures to pay for university.
The fact is that everyone will benefit from a student debt jubilee and free college, even if that benefit is indirect. Consider research from the Levy Institute, which shows that total student debt cancellation would be a significant financial stimulus, boosting the economy in ways that would be advantageous whether you are a debtor or not. And we all stand to gain from living in a society where people are encouraged to learn and expand their intellectual horizons. It’s a cliché, but democracies require an educated citizenry.
Here’s the question we need to be asking. Not whether the College for All Act is perfect policy, but whose interests are ultimately served by partial debt relief and half-measures geared at making college “affordable” instead of free? The answer is the rich and powerful.
History shows that, when forced to make concessions, capitalists prefer to do so in ways that divide people. That’s the real reason the 1% balks at universal programs. Means-testing social goods (restricting benefits programs to people below a certain income level) splits people into “makers” and “takers,” the “worthy” and “unworthy,” feeding the destructive idea that only a minority deserve access to public goods. In contrast, universal programs foster solidarity and are more robust, standing the test of time, despite persistent attacks and austerity – just look at social security – making strategies of divide and conquer more difficult.
Not only would solidarity be strengthened, research suggests that full student debt cancellation would narrow the racial wealth gap. On average, people of color have higher loan balances, with labor market discrimination, lower wages, and less intergenerational wealth combining to make student debt a comparatively greater burden for black and brown borrowers (a similar dynamic is at play for women, who hold two-thirds of all student debt). In a 2018 Roosevelt Institute paper, Marshall Steinbaum found that student debt cancellation could have a profound effect: Instead of white households age 25-40 having twelve times more wealth than black households (12:1), the gap would fall to five times more (5:1). Far from a boon to the already-wealthy, a mass debt discharge would disproportionately benefit black and Hispanic families.
Charging people for college out of pocket has been a failed social experiment. By slashing funding to education, federal and state governments shifted the burden to students and families, leaving 45 million people struggling to pay a combined $1.6tn and counting. At $15 an hour, and ignoring compound interest, that will take over 12 million hours to pay off. Surely that’s time and money that can be better spent – perhaps on fighting for universal healthcare, public housing, and fair wages next.
It turns out you can’t spell “means tested” without “mean.” But you also can’t spell “free college” without “free”. Student debt cancellation and ending college tuition would be truly liberating proposals, giving people their lives and futures back and no longer forcing people to toil for hours, years, and decades to pay back loans that shouldn’t have been issued in the first place.
The path is clear. We must address policy failure not by tinkering around the edges and punishing people by degrees (for trying to get a degree, which is hardly a crime), but by abolishing all student debt and making college free.