By CARLOS SAPIR
After months of publicly mulling over the question of whether to forgive student debt, the Biden administration has finally acquiesced to write off $10k in government-held student loan debt per holder with a household income under $125k, and an additional $10k for Pell Grant recipients. While this is obviously better than no forgiveness, it is a paltry measure compared to the standard of free or near-free public education through college enjoyed by people living in the vast majority of industrialized countries (https://www.insider.com/cost-of-college-countries-around-the-world-2018-6#canada-4939-3).
Partial measures and means-testing, a Democratic Party love affair
It is worth paying attention to the nature of the debt being forgiven by the Biden administration. The debt in question comprises interest payments to the Department of Education. In essence, the government has been holding these debt-holders in a sort of indentured servitude, forcing them to pay much more than the originally loaned amounts. For many recipients, this debt does not require a single cent of government money, and is simply a decision to no longer extort people (as much, given that only 10k is being forgiven per lien) for payments beyond their principal loan. The Biden administration’s plan is expected to erase $330 billion of debt (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2022/08/24/bidens-student-debt-forgiveness-what-to-know/7876380001/), barely 20% of the ~$1.6 trillion cumulative student debt held by Americans.
The fact that this debt ever existed in the first place is criminal, a mundane capitalist cruelty. Even from a non-socialist perspective, forgiving the debt makes economic sense, as it will increase consumer spending at a moment when the economy is entering recession. Nevertheless, the passage of this inadequately-small forgiveness has been accompanied by the Democratic Party mainstay of means-testing. In theory, means-testing exists to target policies towards helping those who need it most. In practice, means-testing introduces unnecessary, byzantine bureaucracy that makes it harder for all people to access it, even if they are working class.
The bourgeoisie are not getting rich by taking out student loans—they attend college loan-free, and they get their money from exploiting the working class, not by misappropriating government welfare. Socialists have no reason to worry about the rich “taking advantage” of basic social goods being made freely available, whether it’s higher education or high-quality public transportation: a society where everyone has access to high-quality public goods is in fact our goal.
Higher education for the working class!
Capitalists and right-wing pundits opposed to even the limited debt forgiveness approved by the Biden administration have tried to paint access to college education as something that is only for the privileged, and that forgiving debt incurred pursuing a higher degree is thus an anti-working-class measure. While the idea that people taking on crippling debt just to attend college are part of the bourgeoisie is laughable, it speaks to a reality of higher education in the U.S. today: beyond the actual education received at a college, the value of a college degree is a social rite of passage in American capitalism that has historically been seen as a ticket to a more lucrative career.
College education does not have to be this way. Education should enrich people’s lives and pave the way to a better society; it should not be treated as an entrance test to higher-paying jobs. While reactionaries sneer at the idea of a plumber with a degree in philosophy, an educated society where all workers have the opportunity to pursue their passions is a cornerstone of the socialist vision of the future.
Moreover, the idea that education is just about career skills is flawed, even under capitalism: the vast majority of college graduates do not take up careers related to their academic focus. In other words, the blue-collar philosophy major is making just as much use of their degree as the office manager. It is also an easily attainable goal, with widely-accessible higher education already a reality under capitalism in many bourgeois states. In fact, even the U.S. itself used to do better in this respect: many public colleges in the U.S. once offered enrollment for free or near-free (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/feb/09/bernie-s/was-college-once-free-united-states-and-it-oversea/), with these policies being reversed over the course of the 20th century as government funding was reduced.
Despite the ease with which other countries have provided free education, the U.S. education system is in total disrepair from preschool through post-grad. Blinkered by austerity policies, public schools and universities have seen their budgets diverted to consultants and administrators that impose further cuts on the crucial educational services provided by these institutions, while the consultants themselves take home multi-million dollar paychecks. Fighting back against this decades-long attack will require organizing on multiple fronts: students and teachers fighting to remake educational institutions they live and work in, alongside a working-class party that brings together organized labor to mobilize for a socialist future.
Photo: Paul Morigi / Getty Images