Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan is only a start

Bidens student debt forgiveness plan is only a start

Audrey Lester, Contributing Writer

 It is no secret that academia was founded on exclusivity. For the majority of academia’s existence, if one did not have access to wealth or whiteness then a university education was simply inaccessible to them. Although significant measures have been taken to promote marginalized students attending college, there is one glaring aspect of a university education that shows the residue of college’s exclusive origins: the price point. 

A recent study found that over one third of those aged 18-24 who are not attending college say they are doing so because it is unaffordable. In response to the high price, many American students turn to student loans, thus affecting the bank accounts of one in seven Americans and 43% of college graduates. 

President Joe Biden has made addressing the American student loan debt crisis a keystone part of his administration. Since Biden’s inauguration, the administration has extended the March 2020 pause on federal student loan payments and interest. To continue this trend of diluting the effects of loans, in August 2022 the administration presented their plan (which is currently blocked by a Texas lawsuit) to forgive a nominal amount of federal student loan debt. This plan, they said, would impact 40 million Americans, including over 700,000 in Minnesota. It will forgive $10,000 in student loans for non-Pell Grant recipients who earn less than $125,000 individually or less than $250,000 for households, and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. This relief comes after decades of demand recently catalyzed by increasing education costs and the financial uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.

However, there is a discrepancy between the magnitude of the issue the Biden Administration is trying to solve and the strength of the administration’s solution. The Biden Administration’s debt forgiveness plan attempts to address an important issue, but ultimately falls short.

The dependency on student loans has snowballed into a financial epidemic. Collectively, borrowers in America owe $1.57 trillion in student loan debts. The effects of this debt are far-reaching. In an effort to pay off their loans as urgently as possible, many graduates go for jobs they can get immediately after college, which often pay less. Of course, as students of color (predominantly Black students) are forced to finance their education via loans, there is a potent racial effect as well. Research by Forbes shows that canceling $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower would increase wealth in the Black community by 40%. Saliently, as more and more Americans become college-educated, they are also exposed to an increasingly prominent part of the ‘college experience’: years of financial strain.

Macalester students are not invulnerable to these effects. According to Brian Lindeman, Assistant Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid, 55% of the Macalester class of 2021 took out a federal loan, and the mean principal loan borrowed amounted to $25,181. These statistics are not abnormal. However, they still portray the financial weight that Macalester students shoulder. Lindeman believes that the Macalester community will be significantly impacted by the Biden-Harris plan, although without statistics on the income of Macalester’s alumni these predictions cannot be made with precision. 

“I do believe that a significant portion of current students and alumni will be eligible,” Lindeman said. 

However, in a culture that vilifies ‘government handouts,’ the forgiveness program’s path has not been easy. The plan is currently blocked and no longer accepting applications after a lawsuit at a federal district court in Texas, where the plaintiff claimed that they were being unfairly excluded from the plan because they did not qualify for loan forgiveness, in ruled that the plan was unconstitutional. Although Biden is seeking to overturn this ruling, it is nonetheless disappointing for millions of Americans who will have their relief slowed or eliminated.

The lawsuit may prompt many to question if the debt relief will ever be seen, but even before the plan was blocked, it was questionable if borrowers would ever experience the effects of the relief. The plan feels like putting a bandaid on a deep wound. 

On the surface, there are many areas where the plan falls short: the monetary amount of loan forgiveness that individual borrowers would receive is far lower than the outstanding debt many have accrued, the plan provides no aid in repaying private loans (which is significant to colleges with high numbers of international students such as Macalester, as most non-U.S. citizens are ineligible for federal loans), and there is no plan for loans taken out in the future. 

 On a deeper level, the plan fails to solve the root cause of the student loan debt crisis: the outstanding cost of college. In fact, the current model of paying for college in the U.S. is (partially) structured around federal loans from the Department of Education; the government is forgiving the debt crisis that they are actively financing. Although this plan certainly reduces some financial burden, many think that applause should be held until the method for financing education is systemically overhauled. 

Dr. Alina Wong, the Vice President for Institutional Equity at Macalester, agrees that this plan fails to address the systemic causes of this crisis. 

“We must also examine the continued decrease in funding for P-16 education from both federal and state governments, as well as the ways that industries defer the cost of professional preparation and training to higher education institutions,” Wong says. 

And, despite there being some impact on current college attendees and graduates, the lack of systemic impact is best portrayed through the minimal effects on future college students. For example, in the case of future enrollment, Lindeman does not think that there will be any effect. 

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the loan forgiveness program will have a significant impact on future enrollment. It’s a great boon for many students who have borrowed in the past, but I don’t anticipate that it will be of help to future students,” Lindeman says. 

This comes at a time when, despite Macalester gradually enrolling more low-income students, possible pandemic effects have decreased the number of low-income students admitted in the two most recent admissions cycles. 

Of course, lapsing into cynicism is easy. While the student loan debt crisis has impacted Americans’ economic and social life for decades, the real-world effects of this crisis are not always all-encompassing. Perhaps many Americans will be able to see the effects of having a few thousand dollars of debt relieved. 

Nonetheless, as a student at an American university, what one will certainly see the effects of is inaccessible education. When walking around Macalester, a university that prides itself on its inclusivity, there is a certain air of exclusivity. Exclusive articles on JSTOR are read, exclusive lectures are heard and exclusive feedback from professors and tutors is given on students’ work. Knowledge at Macalester, like any other higher education institution, is exclusive. At a selective school like Macalester, it is not just the admissions office that decides who has access to Macalester’s knowledge resources. Consider the student who was admitted to Macalester but just couldn’t justify taking out thousands of dollars in loans. Because of the inaccessible system America uses to finance higher education, this person could not attend Macalester. They simply did not have the money. 

Here, academia seems to return to its roots where it is one’s wealth, not admission status, that decides if they can enroll in this institution. Whether one applauds the Biden-Harris administration’s band-aid solution, or whether they lacerate it for its lack of impact, it can be agreed that this is far too archaic of an education system to continue. 

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