In August, the Biden administration announced it would cancel $10,000 of student debt for all federal borrowers making less than $125,000 per year ($250,000 for married couples) and $20,000 for all Pell Grant recipients. Alexandra Steinheimer, a Pell Grant recipient, told reporters that she “almost dropped her phone when she saw the news” and felt that “a huge weight had been lifted off [her] shoulders.” Another described the plan as a “game changer.” Others expressed more skepticism: Ann McWilliams, a resident of Montana, explained in an interview that the forgiveness plan would not even “budge the needle” on what has become over a hundred thousand dollars of debt due to astronomical interest rates.
While people’s diverse experiences with and reactions to this policy reflect its complexity, the Biden administration has largely flouted it as a huge win for Democrats. In a certain sense it is: progressives have been pushing for student debt cancellation for years. Still, while the plan is better than nothing, there are significant gaps in the policy and in its ability to holistically address the problem of college debt and inequities in higher education. These gaps will only be sufficiently addressed with the creation of a universal and free system of higher education.
The student debt cancellation policy is the direct result of sustained progressive pressure on Biden in addition to a broader push for tangible policy wins before the midterm elections. Throughout 2021, the White House maintained a relatively hardline stance on the topic: student loan payments would resume as normal after they lifted the pandemic moratorium. However, debt relief advocates didn’t give up. The Congressional Black Caucus had multiple meetings with the President, emphasizing the ways in which the issue of student debt is deeply tied to racial equity. Senators Warren and Warnock, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, had a meeting urging Biden to reconsider cancellation that was reportedly a “turning point” in the President’s thinking. And, of course, the lobbying efforts of outside organizations like the NAACP were absolutely instrumental.
Student debt cancellation was also politically advantageous for Democrats. After what was described by many as a disappointing first year for the Biden administration, there was significant political pressure on Biden to prove that he could deliver on campaign promises ahead of the midterm elections. A key part of progressives’ messaging to Biden was that without real policy wins before the midterms, voter turnout would plummet and with it would go any hope of a Democrat-majority in either body of Congress. With analysts suggesting that student debt cancellation could increase youth and minority voter turnout in key swing states, these advocates were likely right.
Despite the political benefits of Biden’s debt cancellation plan, millions are still left without promised relief. Due to mounting legal challenges, the Biden administration chose to disqualify an additional four million Americans who have Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL). FFEL loans are federally backed loans funded by private banks. Nick Keppler, one of the millions of people who had FFEL loans, writes that he and other recipients are “withered and long-frustrated” as they have been “sucked dry” by banks for years. He explains that FFEL loan recipients disproportionately attend community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and for-profit schools. This is especially problematic as Black students already face significantly higher interest rates on debt because of systemic racism deeply embedded within the US banking system. Excluding these students from this policy thus entrenches income inequality, further reinforcing systemic racism.
Critically, even a perfectly implemented student debt cancellation plan would do little to fix the structural barriers and deep inequities in our system of higher education. Debt cancellation does nothing to address the massive tuition hikes that have happened across the nation or the fact that elite private institutions are dominated by the top one percent. Brown University, for example, has more students that come from the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent.
These elite institutions of higher education do not drive economic mobility, but instead replicate and magnify income inequality as they propel children of the wealthy into high-paying jobs. In fact, over the last 30 years, the gap in average family income between graduates of public universities and the most selective colleges has grown significantly. Uncoincidentally, the benefits of attending those elite institutions have also grown, which means that elite universities have managed to effectively monopolize the highest paying jobs.
Universities are highly entrenched in a capitalist system that suggests that an individual’s choice to go to college should be a financial wager on their future, not a public good available to all US citizens. Rather than the public sharing the cost of everyone having the option to attend college, regardless of income, we expect individuals to foot the bill—regardless of their ability to do so. Thus, poor and racially marginalized students suffer disproportionately under the weight of student debt, while more privileged students are able to graduate debt-free.
While it may be nearly impossible to implement radical, structural changes in a divided Congress, it is worth asking why the Biden Administration isn’t striving for a more sweeping policy to address inequality in higher education.
While certainly disappointing, this kind of incremental policy making is nothing new. We’ve seen it time and time again. Giving one-time Covid-19 stimulus payments instead of addressing the depleted social safety net. Pardoning federal marijuana possession charges without actually decriminalizing the drug or changing the racist and violent carceral system. Now, instead of pursuing solutions like free community college, Biden has canceled a proportionately small amount of federal debt.
Luckily, there are reasons for hope. While the plan for free community college did not make it into the Inflation Reduction Act, 30 states are on the way to providing it, some universally, and some with income constraints. These recent changes are in large part credited to student activism. For example, the Michigan branch of the national RISE coalition, a group of students dedicated to getting free college for all, was partially responsible for the passing of Michigan’s free two-year community college plan.
On the policy front, the Campaign for Free College Tuition is comprised of a group of former policymakers who are working to craft policies that would make college free mainly by redistributing existing education investments and taxing the wealthy. Finally, the Justice Democrats coalition is working to elect not just Democrats, but progressive Democrats who support free college such as US representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Cori Bush.
Fundamentally, education is a right, not a privilege. Cost should never be a barrier to students seeking an educations, and the only way that can be achieved is with free and universal college. As young voters and as students, we have power in shaping the future of the debates over higher education. By campaigning for progressives and forming student coalitions, we must start pushing for sustained structural progress in addition to immediate relief. One thing is clear: Canceling student debt might be a step in the right direction, but canceling the full cost of college is the only true solution.