The politics of student debt forgiveness

Pressuring everyone to go to college has inflated student debt; it’s time for forgiveness.

by Trent M. Kays

Last month, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 (HR 4170) was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Hansen Clarke, a Democrat from Michigan. The discussion of student loan forgiveness has reached a point where politicians are finally taking notice. Though, in some conversations, it seems that many are confused about what exactly will be forgiven if HR 4170 passes.

The resolution will not just wipe out all student debt. It is a structured program that will allow students and former students to reach a point where they no longer need to pay. Basically, if students make loan payments equal to 10 percent of their discretionary income for 10 years, their remaining federal student loan debt will be forgiven. Needless to say, this resolution will have profound implications for many in the United States.

Our society values a college education, or that’s what we’re supposed to believe. For many students, the drive to attend college is ingrained in them as children. Their parents encourage and, many times, decide their children will go to college. Often, these decisions are regardless of what their children want, yet the belief that children should be better off than their parents is strong.

There was never any doubt that I would attend college. I always knew I would, and though my parents usually demanded I do so, I always wanted to go anyway. It’s safe to assume that my life would be dramatically different had I not attended college. Now, as a teacher and doctoral candidate, I understand the profound impact a college education can have on someone. However, I also understand that college isn’t for everyone. The drive to send everyone to college may be partly to blame for the current crisis higher education finds itself in.

Indeed, that drive is responsible for the outrageous loan debt many students have accumulated. We tell children that they must go to college in order to be successful in the world, and then we make college almost completely unaffordable. So, students go to college and take out loans all on the belief that they will be successful in the world and will be able to pay them off. This is a false belief and one we should stop selling to people.

It almost seems unethical to continue telling people that college is a smart choice, given the massive amounts of debt many will have to accumulate in order to attend. It’s a symptom of a society that values the wrong things. Our society props up the great American dream, while simultaneously shouldering future generations with so much debt that it almost doesn’t matter if there’s a dream.

I’m happy to see HR 4170 because it forgives debt while still holding the debtors accountable. This marriage of responsibilities, the government’s to protect the future of its citizens and the citizens’ to their loans, seems too good to be true. The resolution will allow those with student loans to be free of them after 10 years. There are too many people, from undergraduates to doctoral-level students, who will accumulate enough debt to keep them paying into their AARP years. How is this acceptable? It’s acceptable because education is a highly personal venture, and as such, it is often thought of as something separate from the community. This, however, is ridiculous. Education is only possible through the act of the individual within a community of support.

It’s amazing how many with student loans or who know others with student loans want things to change. Currently, as I write this column, there are over 865,000 signatures on an online petition urging Congress to pass HR 4170. That’s a huge number, and it’s only rising. This is a real concern for many Americans, and it shows by the number of people who’ve signed the petition and by the amount of press student loan debt gets in the media.

While a delicate political issue, student loan debt can no longer be ignored. The cost of college is rising. The interest rates on student loans are rising. Everything is becoming more expensive yet reduced in value. This is unacceptable in the 21st century, and those in power must address it. However, it’s just not enough to pass HR 4170. We need to start thinking about college in a different way.

College works for some and not for others, but society is too focused on sending every child to college when that’s an unrealistic and damning goal. If everyone goes to college, the value of the experience is diminished. This can already be seen in many fields that require a Bachelor of Arts degree. It seems the Master of Arts degree is becoming the new B.A. degree. Why? Saturation.

I would never want to tell someone not to go to college if that was their life-path. However, it should be noted that college is not the only path that leads to success in life. Instead, we should work toward understanding how society depends on many different paths of success. Everyone deserves to be happy, pursue their own destiny and not be burdened with debt they can never escape.

HR 4170 is a start, and it will go a long way to ensuring an economically secure future for many students. If we can learn that college isn’t the only path to success and encourage children to pursue their own passions, then we may be able to alleviate some of the pressures put on higher education, students, teachers and anyone beginning their journey into the world.


Trent Kays welcomes comments at [email protected]