Much of the whining you hear about President Biden’s decision to cancel some student loan debt is coming from people who have no idea what has happened to the cost of a college education.
When I was attending Northeastern University in the 1970s (like many back then, I was the first in my family to graduate from college), the cost was trivial. Not only that, but editors at the student paper, The Northeastern News, received generous tuition stipends. Today, the paper, now known as The Huntington News, is independent, and the students get nothing for their hard work.
Not only did I graduate without debt, but I was also able to get my master’s in American history at Boston University by attending night school, paid for in full out of my crappy newspaper salary. It turned out to be the best investment I ever made: Years later, when I sought to return to Northeastern as a faculty member, the first question I was asked was if I had a master’s.
So I certainly don’t begrudge the relief more recent graduates are getting as a result of Biden’s action. If anything, many people will still find themselves deep in debt, though somewhat less than they are now. I do, however, think debt relief raises two questions that need to be answered.
• What about the role of colleges and universities, whose costs have risen far in excess of inflation during the past generation? Federal loan guarantees were part of that, as it gave them an incentive to compete on amenities rather than price. Shouldn’t we play some part in solving the problem? At the very least, maybe institutions that fail to hold annual increases within a certain range should become ineligible for federal loans.
• What about future graduates? Their debt burden is going to be just as heavy, if not heavier. Are we setting ourselves up for round after round of debt forgiveness? Or might it be possible to construct a more equitable, sustainable system that doesn’t revolve around ever-rising costs, massive loans and calls for debt cancellation?
Those of us who work in higher education are well aware of the sacrifices our students and their families are making, and we often talk about what will happen after the bubble inevitably bursts. There are already some early signs, with young people seeing less value in college than was the case a few years ago. We need to change the way we do business.