Any parent with a child must figure that, one day, that child might go to college. And going to college costs money, in some cases, lots of money.
Among several of America’s leading universities, tuition and fees in 2022-23 ranged from $57,261 per year at Harvard to $66,139 per year at Columbia. Yale came in at $62,250, Cornell at $61,015, Stanford at $58,416, and M.I.T. at $57,986. For 2023-24, the University of Virginia posted $52,254 per year for out-of-state students.
But wait, there’s hope. Tuition and fees at the University of California Berkeley are $44,467 for out-of-staters.
At Cal State Fullerton, actor Kevin Costner’s alma mater and part of California’s excellent state college system, tuition is only $18,887 per year for out-of-state students, before adding living expenses, books, travel, etc.
The point is, going to college – any college – costs money, and many students need to borrow some of that money to make it possible.
In my memoir, Not Your Father’s America, I write about how we were blessed with triplets – three sons – all at once. Because that’s what you want — you want three seventeen-year-olds going off to college simultaneously. There’s no quicker way to bankruptcy.
I describe a three-week tour we took with our three sons to look at colleges. It was a trip we couldn’t afford to see colleges we couldn’t afford. At one point, when our guys were applying, and we were looking at the price of tuition, I heard a reporter on NPR ask the question I was asking, “Why do college tuitions keep going up every year?” The answer: “Because they can.” In his MSNBC documentary, “Loan Wolves,” Blake Zeff estimates that tuitions have tripled in the past 20 years.
Not everyone needs to go to college, of course. Many high school graduates decide that college isn’t for them, either for financial reasons or other lifestyle and work choices. On the other hand, statistics show that a college degree increases an individual’s earning power over a lifetime, even with student debt and, in certain cases, a ton of it.
Indeed, more than 45 million people across the country owe $1.6 trillion in federal loans for college, according to government data, and the average loan debt is estimated to be $37,787 per student.
So, last summer, President Biden proposed using a law passed after the 9/11 attacks – designed to help military families in a national emergency – to forgive student debt. Biden’s plan would have canceled $10,000 in student loan debt for those making less than $125,000 a year or households with less than $250,000 in income. Pell Grant recipients usually show more financial need and would have gotten up to another $10,000 in debt forgiveness.
“But no!” Conservative Republicans complained, “The pandemic is over!” Biden was overreaching, they claimed, even though the Justice Department had advised the President that he had the authority to use the law, and experts argued that fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic was and still is rippling through American lives.
Ultimately, Biden’s forgiveness plan was challenged in a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court. As Adam Liptak reported in The New York Times, “The Supreme Court ruled on June 30th that the Biden administration had overstepped its authority with its plan to wipe out more than $400 billion in student debt, dashing the hopes of tens of millions of borrowers and imposing new restrictions on presidential power.”
It was a resounding setback for the President. In his remarks at the White House after the Court’s decision, the President spoke to what he characterized as the blatant hypocrisy of the situation. “Republicans in Congress voted to overturn the plan,” he said. “At the same time, think about this: We all supported the Paycheck Protection Program — remember PPP? — you know, which was designed to help business owners who lost money because of the pandemic. It was a worthy program.”
“But let’s be clear,” the President continued. “Some of the same elected Republicans, members of Congress, who strongly opposed giving relief to students, got hundreds of thousands of dollars themselves in relief — members of Congress — because of the businesses they could keep open. Several members of Congress got over a million dollars. All those loans were forgiven. You know how much that program cost? $760 billion… (They got) $360 billion more than I proposed in my student debt relief program.”
“I was trying to provide students with $10,000 to $20,000 of relief,” the President added. “By comparison, the average amount forgiven in the PPP — the pandemic loan program — (the) average amount forgiven was $70,000.”
Biden concluded his remarks by promising to create a “new path” to give borrowers relief. True to his word, on July 14th, the Biden administration announced that it would forgive the student loans of more than 800,000 borrowers who enrolled in income-driven repayment plans. According to the Education Department, the new plan will forgive $39 billion in federal student loans through “fixes” to the count of monthly payments borrowers have made.
“For far too long, borrowers fell through the cracks of a broken system that failed to keep accurate track of their progress toward forgiveness,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “By fixing past administrative failures, we are ensuring everyone gets the forgiveness they deserve,” he said.
When it comes to forgiving student loan debt, the questions we should be asking are “What’s fair?” and “What’s best for America?”
One of our sons graduated from Cornell and went on to receive a PhD from Stanford; the other two graduated from the University of Virginia. All three graduated with student debt. One has been able to pay his off; the other two remain in debt. And, not to brag, but after putting our three sons through college – all at the same time – my SEP-IRA account is empty.
Here’s the thing about debt forgiveness that fair-minded folks need to remember. When a debt is forgiven – whether it’s a mortgage, a loan to a friend, a PPP loan to a member of Congress, or college debt – the debtor doesn’t receive a windfall amount of cash equal to the amount forgiven. A college borrower doesn’t get a check for $10,000. The lender, in this case the federal government, absorbs the debt and no longer requires the borrower to make payments on that debt. The borrower gets relief.
According to research by BestColleges.com, the average federal student loan payment for recent undergraduate degree recipients is nearly $300 per month. For a young person entering the workforce, moving forward in a career, and possibly starting a family, not having to pay $300 a month can make a difference. What do we think will happen if millions of college borrowers have an extra $300 a month to spend? Are we afraid they’ll gamble it away? They might start a savings account. Many will purchase goods and services that directly stimulate the economy.
Just like those folks who had their PPP loans forgiven.
What’s fair and what’s better for America? Giving tax breaks to large corporations and forgiving pandemic loans to members of Congress, or forgiving the debt that millions of students have incurred in the process of becoming smarter, more self-sufficient, more productive, and more successful?
Perhaps it is time for a new adage: To borrow is human – to forgive debt is divine.
Cort Casady has won two Emmy Awards and three NAACP Image Awards for his work as a television/documentary writer-producer. His best-selling memoir, “Not Your Father’s America: An Adventure Raising Triplets in a Country Being Changed by Greed,” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores. He is helping two of his sons pay off their student debt.