Why is there debt to forgive?
NellNet and Sallie Mae are not knee-breakers and fingernail-pullers. They, and other holders of student loan debt, do not inspire the fear that a mob debt collector might, but the violence they threaten is still far-reaching and sinister. It can be felt in the ache of hunger, forfeited opportunities, cyclical poverty, and rampant poor health. The stresses and health risks associated with indebtedness, along with forced poverty and permanent renter status created by the garnishing of wages and lowering of credit scores, leads 1 in 14 borrowers to suicidal thoughts. Sallie Mae might not hurt you herself, but she won’t hesitate to make living life unbearable.
How did we get here?
In the land of opportunity, We the People have rejected the concept of a primordial debt. Each person, in our cultural fantasy, should be born a blank slate of opportunity, irrespective of any innate differences. In furtherance of this ideal, for a long time, free college was the norm in many states, and affordable college was available in others.
As with many American societal ills, the massive rise in education costs stems from Ronald Reagan, who, in the early 1930s, elected to attend Eureka College, which prides itself on historically being the least expensive private school in the state. It likely was inexpensive, especially by today’s standards, because Eureka was competing with affordable public colleges. Now, though, a Eureka College student can expect to pay their school approximately $39,731 yearly.
While Governor of California, Reagan was a loud voice against his own state’s very popular free education programs.
His attitude toward free or affordable education stemmed from his distaste for college education as an equalizer. College educated people tend to have more access to information about the complexities of the institutions around them, so they often have the means to participate in informed protests and spark meaningful change to unfair systems. Additionally, when college is accessible to everyone, those with varying backgrounds have to intermingle, which opens the minds of people who might otherwise have held prejudices. This scared Reagan. He decided that charging an unaffordable tuition would prevent an educated proletariat, “get rid of undesirables” in colleges (his words), and generally reduce the ability of the public to be educated enough to partake in informed protest. Notably, when speaking against college students engaged in their right to peacefully assemble, Reagan said “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement!”. Days later, a person opened fire on student protesters at Kent State.
As President, Reagan demolished federal public funding for education, both college and otherwise.
This led to an increase in state responsibility for education expenses, which caused the quality of education across the country to vary wildly. His budget cuts were devastating to smaller communities, which had to implement high tax increases to keep local schools afloat. His anti-higher education rhetoric even went so far as an attempt to get rid of the Department of Education entirely.
Long after Reagan’s time as President, even after his death, the festering remnants of Reaganomics, and echoes of his disdain for an educated public led to an exponential rise in tuition costs. Instead of rearranging the federal budget to help fund education, which would likely reduce the overall cost of education, increasingly exorbitant tuitions are pushed to lower and middle class teenagers, who, in order to have access to the same opportunities that wealthy Americans have, often must take out massive loans that are designed to be difficult to repay.
Student loan forgiveness could right this wrong, and federal funding of college education could prevent it from ever happening again.