student loans

The War on Student-Debt Forgiveness Begins

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that six Republican-led states are suing the Biden administration over the president’s plan to forgive some student-loan debt. As Republicans would have it, they’re fighting elites. “It’s patently unfair to saddle hardworking Americans with the loan debt of those who chose to go to college,” Arkansas attorney general Leslie Rutledge told the AP. The truth is more complicated. Rutledge’s lawsuit is no broadside against the wealthy but rather a direct attack on middle- and working-class households who benefit from the plan. By suing over student-debt relief, they’re waging class war, and if they win, they could keep millions shackled to debt.

Threats from the right and from the student-loan industry itself have already harmed some student borrowers. The Biden administration announced on Thursday that borrowers with privately held student loans will no longer qualify for relief, apparently fearing the measure would be struck down in court. “The federal student loans held by private entities — through a program known as the Federal Family Education Loan program — is a relatively small subset of outstanding federal student loans,” Yahoo News reported. Such loans account “for just several million of the 45 million Americans who owe federal student loans,” but this still means that many people are now stranded without relief. This outcome may be tolerable to student-loan servicers, to the right, and perhaps even to the Biden administration, which hopes to protect its forgiveness plan against further damage. For these borrowers, however, the news is a personal catastrophe that, when repeated millions of times, amounts to a tragedy.

The nation’s student-debt crisis is real, and it should not exist. We got here through a series of lamentable policy decisions that made a college education more available to the masses while fattening the burgeoning student-loan industry. Student-loan debt, in other words, is not a condition imposed upon the wealthy, who can afford to pay for college outright. By definition, student-loan debt penalizes the comparatively disadvantaged for trying to get ahead. Black and Latino borrowers stood to benefit heavily from the Biden administration’s plan as originally outlined: In August, ABC News reported that Black women alone hold two-thirds of the nation’s astonishing $2 trillion collective student-debt burden, and about half of Latino borrowers would have their debt completely canceled.

There were limitations to the Biden administration’s forgiveness scheme even before the White House scaled it back. If you believe, as I do, that student-loan debt is the by-product of a broken and immoral system, then the Biden plan was merely a step on the way to true justice. It fell far short of plans proposed by others, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and as such, it did not fully recognize the scale of the harm done to student borrowers. However, it was something, and in a nation where meritocracy is dust and legend, that is an improvement on the status quo. Getting ahead wouldn’t become easy, at least not overnight, but millions would no longer suffer for trying. That Republicans could not tolerate this is not a surprising outcome. The GOP is the party of hierarchy, which makes it the party of the status quo; student-loan forgiveness in any form threatens the order they seek to protect. The goal of class war is to keep one tier down while another stands on its back. The gentility of the GOP’s chosen method — the courts and not the streets, at least for now — disguises the brutality of its vision.

The Biden administration could stand for an alternative: equality. Yet the president is already sacrificing his superior vision to fear. Student borrowers deserve better from the government that indebted them. The stakes are nothing short of freedom.

Republicans Are Waging War on Student-Debt Relief