More obstacles, worse prizes and a Sharknado: Why I believe in student loan forgiveness

Published on: July 04, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 13, 2022 3:07 PM EDT

Leslie Streeter

Indulge me for a moment, friends, as I tell you a story: Once upon a time there was a kingdom whose subjects were told of a possibly brighter future, one that was attainable if they committed to finishing a race with a pricey entrance fee. Some subjects could easily afford this fee, but for those who couldn’t, the kingdom said, “We got you! We’ll give you a loan, but we’re going to add a series of obstacles on your route, depending on how much help we give you. Good luck!”

“Cool!” said the people, and so they set out on the race. It wasn’t easy, and some of the obstacles seemed to make the race longer, but many of those who finished did, indeed, go on to that brighter future, proud to have done such a hard thing. Others were impressed and entered the race, too, but found that it wasn’t the same. There were now a lot more contestants, with less plentiful and valuable prizes, so where earlier finishers might get, say, a new car, the newer ones might find a used scooter and an opened bag of Skittles.

Worst of all were the new obstacles — where there’d been manageable water hazards and barricades, now there were miles of hot asphalt strewn with rusty pliers, random banks of telemarketers, and the sharks from “Sharknado.”

Entering seemed like a bad idea, but the kingdom insisted that finishing the race was still the key to a better future, so the newer contestants grabbed their combat boots and shark repellent and dove in. After getting bitten — a LOT — some asked the kingdom for help, which the king considered. But the contestants who had long since finished the race and were out here living their lives were MAD. “Nobody helped us!” they griped. “How will you learn responsibility if you don’t have to pay all of the fees back like we did?” Everyone tried to explain that it wasn’t the same race, that the fee had been hellaciously jacked up and that their obstacles didn’t have teeth. They even tried to explain the benefits to the kingdom if everyone was able to participate fully without having to worry about stepping on hot asphalt.

Still, the naysayers were unmoved. And then requested everyone get off their lawn.

So, yeah, this is about student loan forgiveness. I think it’s a good idea. A lot of people don’t agree — and while there may be some strong financial arguments against President Biden’s proposed plan to forgive at least $10,000 for some borrowers, simply not wanting others to get a break you didn’t isn’t one of them. Because it’s not the same game you played. What’s more, it seems to be rigged.

According to CNBC, the cost of college has doubled every year between the 1991-1992 school year, when I was a junior at University of Maryland College Park, and now in 2021-2022 when my goddaughter has just finished her freshman year at art school. Meanwhile, income has stayed stagnant. Continuing to argue that this is about personal responsibility and hard work is not the moral flex you think it is. It seems incredibly unfair to encourage student borrowers to take on a crippling economic obligation knowing that it might be years, if ever, before they make more than they paid for those degrees.

Also, as The New York Times’ Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote recently, the working class is still being sold the message that a degree is the surest ticket to economic success, while being encouraged to take what some call “good debt” that they’re never going to get out of. I watch enough “American Greed” to know a scam when I see one. As McMillan Cottom put it, “When you are scammed by a friend, it is a shame. When your country scams you, it is a fraud.”

Besides a stubborn sense of “I got mines! Later, suckas!” I think a lot of people who oppose debt forgiveness are confused about who’s benefitting. As McMillan Cottom wrote in the Times, there’s a perception of college students as drunken kids wanting to be bailed out for running up Dad’s credit card for four years, when, in reality, “No one drank enough beer in college for the last 30 years to deserve a student loan balance that increases even as the debtor attempts to pay down the principal.”

“But Leslie!” you may be saying. “You probably had college loans and you paid them, right? Why shouldn’t other people do the same?” In the fall of 1989, I was, indeed, the recipient of a federal loan that amounted to $976 and some odd cents a semester, a check so tiny that the student clerk at the bursar’s office at the University of Maryland College Park excitedly called her coworkers over to look at it. “I’ve never seen a check so small!” she marveled. “Are your parents rich or something?”

No, I wasn’t rich, but that apparently laughable check (ouch), which increased slightly over time, may have been a blessing, because there was less to pay off and I was done in nine years. I was lucky — Forbes recently wrote that for some borrowers, the average is now 20 years! And in 1995, two years after I graduated, the average student left college with $12,600 in debt, which is now $22,302 in 2022, compared to about $31,000 for those who graduated in 2021. If you wanna get even deeper, the average student in the college class of 1970, the same year my dad graduated from Morgan State, owed just $1,070, which is still, when adjusted to today’s money, a reasonable $7,458.

It’s not the same race.

Listen, I’m all for responsibility. I’m proud to have paid off my loans, and to own a home, and to have relatively good credit. But I also didn’t start the process in so much debt that meeting those milestones might seem insurmountable. And I love my kid too much to tell him that he’s supposed to be successful, no matter what, while piling rocks in his pocket and telling him to run as fast as I did.

Because we are not running the same race, y’all. Not even a little.