Student Debt is a Curse Upon America's Future. Biden Must Wipe It Out—All Of It | Opinion

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden's first day in office, one hundred people calling themselves the Biden Jubilee 100 declared themselves to be on a student debt strike. They represent a growing movement of debtors who are demanding that the new administration take bold action to cancel all student loans during its first one hundred days. They also represent the estimated 45 million people in this country who hold a combined $1.7 trillion in student debt.

There's a broad consensus that student debt has reached crisis proportions in this country. In 2012, when Joe Biden was Vice President, student debt surpassed $1 trillion dollars. If President Biden doesn't do something, student debt will surpass $2 trillion on his watch.

Skyrocketing tuition costs coupled with diminished federal and state funding have caused the nation's balance sheet to explode. While students from rich families graduate debt-free because their parents have the means to pay up front, most people have to borrow. Because of interest, working people wind up paying far more than their wealthy counterparts for equivalent degrees.

Fortunately, this is a problem President Biden can solve, without going through Congress. The 1965 Higher Education Act granted the executive branch the authority to "compromise and settle" student debt. That means that President Biden has the power to direct the Secretary of Education to wipe out all federal student debt (an authority Trump put to the test when he suspended student loans payments because of the pandemic).

Some might think the Biden Jubilee 100 are making a radical demand. They are not. Cancelling all student debt is actually a step toward restoring the status quo and returning to the principles the American public university system was founded on. Not that long ago, college was much more affordable or even free. That arrangement helped build the American middle class by educating this country's workforce and citizenry without burying households in unpayable debt. All the Biden Jubilee 100 are asking for is parity. They deserve the same chance as previous generations to attend college without having to mortgage their futures and destroy their credit scores.

The fact is, cancelling all student debt would help all of us—even people like me who long ago paid off their student loans.

There's an abundance of research showing how student loans are stifling a generation and the hurting economy writ large. It hampers home ownership and dampens entrepreneurialism. Cancelling all student debt would provide an economic boost of up to $108 billion a year and create millions of jobs. It makes sense: monthly debt payments would be freed up to be spent on other things. Rather than enriching a small handful of student loan servicing corporations, money would be spent on daily needs, from rent to groceries to supporting the small businesses negatively affected by COVID.

The stories on the Biden Jubilee 100 website make this palpable. They are a very diverse group, in terms of age, race, and geography. They pursued a variety of careers, including health care, teaching, and joining the clergy. Some took out loans for their children so they could go to college. What they have in common is that they are unable to pay for housing, health care, or save for retirement because of their student debt. The pandemic has, of course, made their economic struggles even more dire.

No wonder canceling student debt is popular across the political spectrum. A majority of Americans support student debt cancelation, including those who have no student debt or have already paid off their student loans. Nearly one in five Trump voters said they would consider voting for a Democrat if the Democrats canceled all student debt. If Democrats want to hold on to Congress in 2022, or the White House in 2024, President Biden should cancel student debt now. Doing so would help forge the unity Joe Biden so highly prizes.

Student debt causes widespread harm, but it's important to note it impacts the most vulnerable borrowers worst of all. Black women, for example, are the most burdened by student debt, and it's easy to understand why. They come from families that have less intergenerational wealth, which means they have to take out loans to attend school. Then, because of wage inequities, they have a harder time making monthly payments. On average, Black students graduate with $7,400 more debt than white students. This gap soon becomes a canyon. A 2019 study reported that 20 years after starting college, the typical white student owes 6 percent of their cumulative debt, or around $1,000, while the typical Black borrower still owes 95 percent, or around $18,500.

Or consider seniors, the fastest-growing group of student debtors. 37 percent of seniors with student loans are in default. The number of Social Security recipients 65 and older who had their benefits seized due to defaulted federal student loans increased by more than 500 percent between 2002 and 2015. That means less money for essentials including rent, food, and medicine for our nation's elderly.

As one of her last acts as Donald Trumps' Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos wrote a public farewell letter blasting student debt relief as "regressive," claiming it would reward the wealthy. It was a strange message from a billionaire known for enacting policies that favor the privileged. But other well-meaning people have voiced similar concerns. Wouldn't canceling student debt benefit highly educated and high income doctors and lawyers?

The reality is, student debt is by definition regressive. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be forced into debt to get an education. The children of millionaires and billionaires don't have any student debt—their parents can pay for them to attend college. Wealthy seniors aren't having their Social Security check garnished because they defaulted on their student loans. What's more, eliminating student debt for doctors and lawyers is actually a good idea—it would mean more of them could choose low-paying public service jobs, or work in rural areas where their services are needed but there's less money to be made, because they wouldn't have a massive debt hanging over them. For these reasons and many more, canceling student loans is the progressive and fair thing to do.

The Biden Jubilee 100 are taking the brave step of declaring themselves on strike in order to push the powerful to act. They can't pay their student loans, and they shouldn't have to. They have suffered under a failed policy, and cancelling all student debt is the first step towards reforming this country's broken higher education system.

The cause of the Biden Jubilee 100 makes monetary and moral sense and they deserve the public's support. Canceling all student debt would provide a much-needed stimulus, help close the racial wealth gap, and give tens of millions of debtors and their families the chance to rebuild their lives. Working people should be able to pursue higher education without getting ensnared in a debt trap, and we're all better off when our fellow citizens are educated and able to pursue opportunity. Let's hope the Biden administration listens to reason and does the right thing by canceling all student debt without further delay.

Astra Taylor is the director of the film What Is Democracy?, the author of the book Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When it's Gone, and a co-founder of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.