Tuesday Talk*: Should Student Debt Be Canceled?

Floaters are already out there about Joe Biden’s first 100 days, which is obviously an arbitrary timeline intended to suggest what his priorities will be. It’s like saying he’s going to do something on “Day 1,” as if he won’t be busy attending inauguration balls.

One thing that’s being floated is that he’s going to pay back the Warren supporters for their votes with a gift, fulfillment of Warren’s purchase of their love.

New York’s Senior Senator, Chuck Schumer, who hopes to hold onto his position as a leader in the Senate, even if not of the majority, is pushing Biden as the new FDR, with one of his first moves being the cancellation of $50,000 in student debt by Executive Order.**

To those sinking under debt, this is an unmitigated good, and all arguments to the contrary are just haters hating. Except there are actual issues to be considered.

The thread proffers many of the considerations, not the least of which is the core problem of government providing easy money in the hope of allowing every student, regardless of means, to get a college degree, which facilitated an absurd rise in the cost of tuition. Hey, somebody has to pay for those Title IX admins.

Students knew, or should have known, that they were assuming massive debt that would present a problem when they looked for a job at the grievance studies store. Okay, that was gratuitously snarky, and there is nothing wrong with a liberal arts education provided one can either afford it or is willing to suffer the cost of paying it back, knowing that there would be no job for which you were qualified other than as a minimum-wage writer for Slate. Okay, that was gratuitously snarky too. My bad.

You paid for your education? You paid back your student loans? Your parents paid for your education? Your parents didn’t go out to dinner or buy a new car so they could provide you with an education? Are these fair concerns, since the repayment of these debts to the colleges that milked these kids with mumbles such are promises has to come from somewhere? So you’ll be paying for college again, except this time for some other student.

Then again, there is no denying that the assumption of massive debt is crushing the soul and the future expectations of college graduates. They can’t find decent paying jobs. They can’t even discharge their debt in bankruptcy when it is no longer possible to manage it.

Did the government, with its good but misguided intentions, destroy their lives? Did the colleges who love them dearly as long as their seats are filled, their tuition paid and the tenured profs paycheck’s cashed, burn their beloved babies?

The situation may be untenable, but how do we get out of it?

And for those of a social justice view, why should Biden give a $50,000 gift to the privileged Ivy whiners when there are plenty of black and brown people on the streets trying to come up with a way to buy diapers on their minimum wage. Or does this no longer matter since the government can afford everything by pulling trillion dollar coins off the Money Tree, with a little 2% assist from the obscenely wealthy?

What about lesser fixes, like eliminating accrued interest and making debts dischargeable in bankruptcy again? And what about coming to grips with the relative value of a college education? Maybe a gender studies degree doesn’t provide the same value as, say, computer science? Maybe the solution should incentivize better educational choices, that not everyone is cut out for higher ed, and that some degrees are remarkably poor choices for students who don’t have a trust fund to fall back on?

And should colleges and universities, and their minions, who got all this loot, escape unscathed?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

**Whether it can be done by EO is a remarkably dangerous and controversial question, but outside the scope of this TT. Let it go for now.

57 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Should Student Debt Be Canceled?

    1. mer

      “Floaters are already out there about Joe Biden’s first 100 days…”
      First things first.
      Does anyone really expect Joe to make it past 1 Feb before he get’s 25th’d? That would be interesting: House is close enough, some Dems vote in a Repub for Speaker, Joe gets the 25th amendment applied to him, Harris goes to Pres, the new Repub speaker becomes VP to break any ties in the Senate.

      Now should student debt get forgiven?
      By the Government? No. Not without a quid pro quo.

      A program that says “Ok we’ll forgive student debt. For every $10,000 forgiven, you spend a week helping Scott Presler (the guy who had a cleanup in Baltimore) cleaning up cities. And you have to learn to actually earn your own living instead of off of mom and dad.

      Or private individuals (Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg, etc) could write a check in return for work.

  1. Quinn Martindale

    The potential racial disparity of student debt forgiveness is directly addressed by Schumer and Warren’s plan. Black households are more likely to have student debt than white households and also have a slightly higher median level of debt. Therefore they would disproportionately benefit from student debt relief as long as the total amount forgiven is capped.

    1. Rengit

      I don’t think the meaning of equal protection is “things that disproportionately burden black people/benefit white people = bad and should be illegal” and “things that disproportionately burden white people/benefit black people = good and should be legal”. Moreover, since we’re told race is an immutable category, this seems like a disastrous approach to politics.

  2. John S.

    “the repayment of these debts to the colleges that milked these kids with mumbles such are promises has to come from somewhere. ”

    But students hear what they want to hear, and disregard the rest…

  3. mistah charley, ph.d.

    Admittedly a peripheral issue – however, one wonders how many inaugural balls there will be in January 2021 if Biden is inaugurated and attendees and staff have yet had an opportunity to be inoculated with the mRNA vaccines. I happened to see Karl Rove on Fox mentioning this issue – he seemed to find the prospect amusing.

  4. Skink

    Or does this no longer matter since the government can afford everything by pulling trillion dollar coins off the Money Tree, with a little 2% assist from the obscenely wealthy?

    The loot is coming from a 401K near you, as all law is changeable for the greater good.

  5. Kirk A Taylor

    You already alluded to it but to put it more explicitly:

    Government paying student debt off without a solution to rising college costs AND a fix for the broken student financing plan that got us here is the equivalent of taking out a home equity line to pay off the maxxed out credit cards while being willfully blind to the fact that you will just max them out again.

    I am opposed to student loan debt relief for many reasons but someone might be able to sell me on a plan…but not until we cut the metaphorical credit cards up and are sure we won’t apply for more.

  6. Mike S

    Forgiving $50k of student debt creates additional moral hazards and if done once, future borrowers will assume that it will be done for them as well. It could still be a good idea if coupled with serious reform. Such as eliminating the federal student loan programs entirely.

  7. John S.

    Feelings of fairness so on aside, I’m willing to accept that it could be in the country’s best interests to deliver a massive handout that would not benefit me and in fact would make a lot of my choices directly bad in retrospect – as well as be a pretty huge boot to the face for my partner who just began a job where a significant fraction of the compensation is repaying these exact same loans. Instead I would focus on that this is, bluntly, insane if we also do not tear down the system that created this mess to begin with.

    The higher education system like so much else at this point is just trading on a name and fond memories from decades past. If the true product of higher education is these sob stories of debt that are so awful the government must intervene to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars then let’s at least accept that the government has no idea what it’s doing by participating in this system and it’s time to butt out entirely.

    1. Scott Spencer

      Don’t think doing away entirely with federal involvement in higher education is the right solution though I don’t know what the right solution is.

      Federal and state loan programs and grants have allowed the less wealthy to attend school when they might not have been able to in the past. I would argue that this is a good thing.

      I argue though that the almost absolute need for a degree to get even an entry level position is where the problem lies. Higher education (my industry) has brought all this negative attention on ourselves by getting moving away from the education idea and into the consumer world. We sell degrees as a commodity. We pay lip service to actual learning and fret over retention rates and 4 year graduation rates. Students graduate with inadequate grasps of how to write, use logic, and sometimes even use basic communication skills.

      Oy, maybe I just made your point……

  8. B. McLeod

    This effectively awards a random, competitive advantage to debtors who have loan balances at this time. It will be inherently inequitable to students who paid their debt as well as to those who will borrow and have to repay their debt in the future.

    1. Keith Lynch

      And also inequitable to those of us who never went to college due to the cost, and are now being taxed to subsidize our competitors in the job market.

  9. orthodoc

    According to legend, Milton Friedman agreed to sign the brief arguing against the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 “only if the word ‘no brainer’ appears in it somewhere.” His contention was that because the CTEA was retroactive, and because copyrights exist to promote the progress of science and useful arts and because retroactively granting dead Walt Disney a longer copyright will not get us any more Mickeys from him, the law was clearly brainless. (Interestingly, Friedman did sign it, but my ^f search did not find the word “no-brainer” in it.) Similarly, this executive action won’t make it easier to get people to go to college and in fact will make it harder, to the extent that less money is now available for Pell grants etc. Like the CTEA, it is a sop to a favored group. It’s a no-brainer for me to oppose it. (Unless they retroactively pay me back for my retired school loans. Then it’s pretty smart and enlightened.)

  10. Rxc

    In addition to paying off their debt, the grievance studies majors should be given well paying (at least GG-15 level) jobs in the federal government in the new Department of Grievance Identification and Remediation.

    1. norahc

      I’m waiting for some woke heads to explode when they realize that those accused by the Title IX kangaroo courts are also going to get their 50k in debt forgiven.

      1. Rengit

        I imagine that we’ll get a recommendation from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, now chaired by the architect of the Title IX Dear Colleague transformation, that forgiving student loans for those found responsible of committing sexual assault or harassment by their college violates the civil rights of female students because it would amount to the government “subsidizing their sexual assaults”.

  11. Kentucky Packrat

    The Mosaic Law had the concept of the Jubilee because they knew that debt == slavery (albeit voluntary). All these people who have $50k-$100k of student debt can’t buy houses, new cars, and all of the other drivers of economic prosperity that those of us who are closer to retirement than the start of our careers want to keep happening. Own a house which you are counting on selling (or a reverse mortgage, etc.) for part of your retirement fund? No buyers means no value. Less big-ticket purchases, and that 401k takes it on the chin. And let’s not even talk about the temptation to hyper inflate to fix the debt; the Fed’s already walking down that path with this dip. A $200k 401K now doesn’t do you a lot of good if you are having to use a wheelbarrow to carry your cash to the store for groceries later.

    As the old saying is paraphrased: borrow $1000 from the bank, and you lose sleep at night. Borrow $1 million from the bank, the banker loses sleep at night. The student loan money has already been borrowed from us, and can (for the most part) never be paid off at equivalent value. Now we just need to figure out the best way to lessen the damage as much as possible.

    1. Erik H

      The question I keep asking, with few answers:

      Why do you apply that to STUDENT debt, instead of either “debt” or “debt held by the poor?”

      What about student debt makes it uniquely worth of cancellation?

      1. William Henson

        If I were being cynical (and I usually am) I would say it’s because they are the ones out rioting

      2. Rengit

        Theoretically, taking on student debt is supposed to be the responsible choice: most people recognize a difference between taking out a $50,000 loan to pay for college at a good private school versus taking out a $50,000 loan to buy the latest model BMW 5-series. If you did all the right things and took out the loans as a necessity, but it hasn’t worked out because of job market issues or the compounding problems of the student loan industry and rapidly snowballing tuition, cancelling student loan debt but not luxury car payment debt seems fair.

        In practice, though, too many students go in with no plan and treat their four years (and often more) in school as a time for partying and self-exploration, not making the proper use of their time there in regards to picking out a good field of study, studying hard, always attending class, internships, and making the necessary connections, but still expect to be handed a $50,000 a year job by age 23 at a hip, modern company for getting a 2.75 GPA in psychology from a decent state school or a solid-but-not-elite SLAC. This might have worked 35 years ago when way fewer people went to college, but not in the past decade, so now those kids are aggrieved that they’ve been working at Starbucks for over 4 years after graduation when they expected much better. Then there are the ones who do the same thing, no effort, all partying, but get handed a $90,000+ job at age 23 because they and their parents knew all the right people and college was mostly just a formality. Neither of these cases seems a responsible use of student loans, nor would wiping them out with the stroke of a pen seem very fair.

      3. Kentucky Packrat

        Student debt is the only voluntary, non-judgement debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. If you’re going to keep it as the special albatross that can’t be removed from one’s neck, then it justifies special measures.

        Personally, I’d be satisfied with seeing it placed under the jurisdiction of bankruptcy, and the federal government step out of the guarantee business. (Moreover, I’d like the colleges to have to hold the loan paper, but I’m not sure that should be legislated.) Then, if someone’s got $150k in student loans and is working at Denny’s, a bankruptcy judge can vacate the debt. It’d also force people to only get the debt their degree could pay, and for colleges and lenders to have some skin in the game for only giving loans to people who can pay them off.

        1. Rengit

          One of the problems with the bankruptcy approach is that, unless you are a very rich person worth a minimum of 8 figures, bankruptcy will certainly wreck you in the medium term and very likely in the long term too. It can take a decade to repair your credit score, and everything you do actually own, like a car, will be taken from you; you better not have a mortgage on a house, even a cheap one, because not only will you lose it, but you will lose money on what you paid for it as well.

          I am not sure how the proverbial 29 year-old with $130,000 in loans working at Starbucks after graduating middle of the pack from a run-of-the-mill MBA or MFA program before turning 25 is helped much by having their debt wiped out thru the bankruptcy process, but is then unable to qualify for any type of non-educational loan until their early 40s and sees no immediate or short-term improvements in employability and would have to go to school again to see any medium- to long-term improvements. You won’t be starting over fresh before turning 30, you’ll be starting over fresh at 42.

  12. Hunting Guy

    William Shakespeare.

    “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”

    Benjamin Franklin.

    “Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.”

    1. Rengit

      Not to discount their advice, but in both Shakespeare’s and Franklin’s time, debtor’s prison was a thing. Literally, not metaphorically in the “I have to have roommates at 27 because of my student loans, this is like prison” way that too many millennials mean it.

  13. Erik H

    The problem with those “sinking under student debt” is that they are SINKING, not that they have student debt. What if they’re not sinking? What if non students are sinking more, or faster?

    The proponents are assuming their own argument. The real question is “if we’re going to give a ton of aid who should get it?” But under any rational scheme the answer is “poor people” or perhaps “poor and uneducated people”. So they are trying to skip that argument.

    This is obvious because the “help poor people” argument is morally equivalent, if not superior, to the “help students” argument. They refuse to engage on it as a result. Or they just say “do both!!”

  14. Scott Spencer

    Working in Higher Ed at the moment has given me some perspective on this…..

    Coming from some admitted privilege, I got through undergraduate schooling because my parents did what they thought was right by sacrificing and not having me take out loans. They did the same for my brother and sister.

    I went to law school on my own dime and am still paying loans for another 5 years. That being said, I don’t have any problem paying these. My life has been better because I went to school and I have the job I do because of the degree I received. Personally I feel a responsibility to pay back those loans.

    But I have friends that have gotten sunk into a ton of debt from for profit schools that had them sign up for loans that they did not understand nor need. In this case, I think there is an argument to be made to forgive these. How to differentiate who should and who shouldn’t be waived is a real issue. Maybe we waive all outstanding loans from for profit schools? I don’t know.

    Since its a TT day, I will say that loans themselves are symptomatic of the real problems, something that has been mentioned here before I believe. The idea that everyone HAS to go to college and the rising costs associated with higher education are the real problems.

    I see students everyday that should NOT be in college. This was true at the big state school I worked at as well as the small liberal arts style that I work at now. I had a student tell me the other day he was transferring to a community college to get his ASE certification. This actually made me happy for two reasons, his parents seemed to get that college is not for everyone, and he wanted to do something that would make him happy.

    Anyway, this certainly rambled off topic. Sorry.

  15. Rengit

    Imagine having done one of those programs where you take a legal job in public service, like a non-profit or a public defender or a low-paying government job, you’re about 2/3 of the way through while watching your peers make six figures or close to it, while you’ve been making sub-$40,000 a year living in a bad neighborhood or in some boring rural county but knowing your debt will decrease dramatically once it’s done, then you can move on to a better job in the private sector.

    Now, your higher-income peers are going to experience a great windfall, and you are going to see the plans you made rendered a horrible idea in retrospect.

      1. Rengit

        Now that’s dark.

        Normally, I’d expect something like to include benefits for veterans and people in the military to offset what they’re losing out on given the sacrifices made, but taking into consideration that the people who are most likely to benefit from this kind of debt cancellation tend to be people who don’t like the military, don’t like what it represents, and don’t like people of a military background because of cultural/SES issues, I wouldn’t expect much effort in this direction, especially if it’s done through executive action rather than the usual push-and-pull of legislation.

      2. John S.

        As a veteran, I can attest that the GI Bill will not normally cover the costs of a four year degree. And even if it did, I would not recommend that as a motivation to enlist.

  16. ETB

    This topic always touches a nerve with me. I had the **privilege** of attending a private college that my parents agreed to pay for. As my grandparents aged, they started giving their kids annual exclusion gifts (of their hard-earned money), which my parents shared with me and which went directly to pay some remaining loans after I finished grad school. I was the proud owner of two music degrees and pursued the orchestral musician fantasy.

    Then I went to law school. I worked full time during law school. I did sign up for loans, but am grateful they were only loans for tuition and books and not for living expenses as well. I worked my ass off through law school. My parents did not pay a dime for law school. And I cherish the work I did, the degree I earned, and the life I am building — now with my wife and my son.

    My wife graduated from Rice with significant debt, and I had my law-school debt, close to 150K between us. We worked. We scrimped. We poured every extra dollar into paying those fucking loans off. And we knew we had signed up for a monkey on our back when we signed the promissory notes. And it pisses me off that we, as a society, would even entertain a massive write-off like this. I have no doubt thousands of others have even better stories of working to pay off more debt. It is a punch in the gut for me personally when this talk starts up.

    I have always thought there should be a program similar to 401K matching where, instead of contributing to a retirement fund, a person with student-loan debt can opt to have part of their paycheck and the company match go directly to the loan. Maybe it’s simplistic, but that little extra on the principal every month would have helped.

  17. Earl Wertheimer

    Thinking that the government will do the ‘right’ thing is naive. There is no advantage in making students (or any other group) less dependent on government handouts. Whatever market exists, they will proceed to destroy in the name of ‘fairness’.

    They will do the same thing as they have always done. They will bailout the people who took advantage of whatever scheme the government put their crooked hands into. They will force people to collude with their monopolies, then bail them out when it all goes to crap…

    Education, Farming (Cheese stockpile, Ethanol, ad nauseum), NYC Taxi medallions (coming soon), Car making (GM bailout), Public transport, Sports stadiums, Banking (Lehman, AIG), ad nauseum

    The government will finance their useless grievance studies degrees, mandate their useless jobs (Title IX admin, Chief Diversity Officer) or support their useless lives (basic income).

    …and we get to pay for it…

    The information you really need: The top 20 Diversity Titles. Read it and weep.
    I like President of Universal Transformative Zeitgeist.

  18. Curtis

    To be a chump or not be a chump? That is the question. My daughter is entering college next year. She is going to an expensive, private university (to get an engineering degree) and currently has scholarship for about half of it.

    We had been planning to use her 529 college savings plan followed by a home equity loan but Warren says that only chumps pay their own way. Should we be responsible chumps or should we make everyone else pay for her education?

    1. Erik H

      Not to be personal, but:

      My kid literally just turned down multiple high-end private schools to attend a very good honors program at a state school.

      Why? Because her total cost including tuition and fees and room and board is (after scholarships) ~18k/year. Since she can earn $10k/summer as a waitress, she’ll graduate w/ less than $35k in debt, even without parental help. If she buckles down she can pay it off in full before she’s 25.

      She is also specifically considering life income and career when thinking about majors. She may go to grad school, but she isn’t currently willing to major in something where you basically HAVE go to grad school to be useful. No “prelaw” for her.

      Now, of course this is a sacrifice for her. The state school is very good, and the graduates do very well, and the honors program is even better. But still: it’s in the top 75 nationally and not the top 25. The Obamas of the world don’t go there and it won’t open any doors.

      I *used* to think this was a smart choice. Now I’m not so sure. Is this just a game for suckers? Should she say “screw it?” Should she take on every penny of available loans and pay $70k instead of $18500? Will y’all pay for it? Is there some bizarre mirror universe where any of this makes sense?

      1. Steve King

        I think she made the right choice. The Ivy League has been reduced in value to the connections you make vice the education you get. There are of course some exceptions to this, notably in STEM. It is not so much the “greatness” of the education she gets its what she does with what she learns.

    2. Casey Bell

      “Should we be responsible chumps or should we make everyone else pay for her education?”

      There’s a 3rd option. Send your daughter to a local, public college or university
      instead of an expensive private school. Over the course of 4 years the savings
      could run into six figures and she could end up with an education as good, or better, than what she would of received at the private school.

      1. Curtis

        Obviously but we all make choices. There are important things at the private school that she cannot get at any state schools. We decided that we would delay retirement, pay for the school and she would repay a $20,000 home equity loan when she graduated.

        But that’s the chump way if there is Biden money to grab.

  19. David

    One issue with student loan debt is much harder to discharge in bankruptcy. Yet when the changes to the bankruptcy law were made to favor lenders, we did not see a corresponding reduction in rates to adjust for the decreased risk. Rather than blanket debt forgiveness, the bankruptcy law could be updated to allow discharge in bankruptcy for loans at rates that exceed the current risk. Lenders could be allowed to adjust rates to allow them to maintain the favored status under the current bankruptcy code.

  20. Steve King

    This is a very good essay and raises many valid points.

    I paid for graduate school after leaving AD by staying in reserves and taking out loans. Took eight years, but that left me free and clear.

    It is extremely difficult to spend money well. The problem with blanket solutions is that they are usually not very good. When I was doing accounting\systems work in a large DOD agency, I learned not to ignore the 5% solution because that meant you now had a 95% problem instead of a 100% problem. Sometimes you cannot solve everything at once so you do 1% here, 5% there, etc.

    Then there is the the whole issue of: Are student loans the problem or a symptom?

    At some point the individuals choice comes into play. Read a story about a young woman who wanted to be a doctor, but became a welder instead because she could start at a decent salary instead of being in the hole for $500,000. There are far too many people in college who should not be.

    Thanks for the essay and chance to comment.

  21. rxc

    And then there are the people who actually worked their way thru university, and paid SS and income taxes on the money that they used to pay their tuition. They don’t get a dime back, not even the taxes they paid for the “privilege”.

    Oh, and thanks for enabling the Edit function.

  22. Miles

    We all make choices based on the available information and circumstances as they exist at the time. Changing the rules later undermines our ability to make wise choices. If student loans are canceled now, what do students and parents do next year and the year after, etc.

    There is a lot of unfairness and burden here, but how to cure it presents problems. The only thing clear is that easy money made skyrocketing tuition painless for colleges. That can’t be allowed to continue, but that too presents hard questions as to how it can be prevented.

  23. Scarlet Pimpernel

    I personally see college as a 4 year vacation from adult life. Yes, if you make smart choices you can come out of it with better career choices, but you will still be close to ignorant to the actual skill set needed for the vast majority of jobs. My question for people who push for this always is,

    What are we doing for the kids who didn’t go to college and are still struggling through life. Just because someone went to college and got to postpone being an adult for 4 years, doesn’t make them any more deserving of success, than the person who because of their life circumstances, started working as a waitress or digging ditches.

    Those with student debt can’t buy a house or new car, boo hoo, neither can their local barista pouring them their morning coffee and they have probably been working since they got out of high school.

    1. Casey Bell

      College was no 4 year vacation for me. Even though I graduated way back in 1976,
      I still remember what a grind it was to be a full-time student while working 20 to 30
      hours a week to pay for tuition and books. I couldn’t wait to be done with school.

  24. Sgt. Schultz

    This is the best TT you’ve had in a very long time. Interesting, informative and some excellent ideas. Well done.

    1. F. Lee Billy

      WWWho asked you? We hate cops around here, even more than prosecutors and judges.
      Neither a debtor nor a borrower be…unless you’re desparado incarnate. You can take the man out of the jungle, but you cannot take the jungle out of the man. Sir Henry Morton Stanley, we presume?

  25. Skink

    The federal deficit is a few billion over $3T this year, and the government is looking to throw a few more trillion at virus relief. So tossing a bunch of billions at debt forgiveness hardly matters.

    Don’t you get the idea you might not be in on the joke?

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