President Biden’s student debt relief plan has been met with cheers and jeers, and no one is cheering and jeering more than those Americans who will be untouched by it. Critics have called this plan a glorified government bailout targeted at able-bodied, affluent Americans.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has called the plan “a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college and every graduate who paid their debt.” The validity of such arguments relies on an iteration of America that delivers on its promise of equality in access, privileges, opportunities, and outcomes for all, not the actual America which continues to show priority, favor, and exclusivity.

An estimated 45 million people in the United States owe $1.6 trillion in federal student loans. The majority of borrowers grappling with this debt today are millennials under 40. Many of those that earned a degree graduated into one of the weakest economies and job markets in recent history, crippled by the financial crisis of 2007 and subsequent Great Recession. Millions of others never earned a degree and have struggled for a decade to keep up with minimum payments. According to a recent Columbia University study, 40% of college dropouts eventually defaulted on their student loans. A quarter of college students leave before earning a degree or credential. Without the payoff of a degree, loan repayment for these individuals is crushing and the effects of loan default undermines their financial security. Taking out federal student loans has become more like playing with fire than utilizing a resource meant to encourage higher education, promote success, and provide aid. Just 8% of borrowers with a bachelor’s degree defaulted on their loans.

Education costs have continued to rise as income growth has staggered. According to the Federal Reserve, individual net worth in Americans below age 34 had fallen 13.4% between 1989-2019. For Americans aged 35-44, those figures had declined 19% between 1989-2019. Biden’s student debt relief will provide a much needed respite for a poorer generation.

In order to qualify for loan forgiveness, individuals must make less than $125,000 a year. Admittedly this figure will allow for benefits to flow unnecessarily to a few comfortable bystanders, but it will exclude top earners in tech, law, and medicine who have no trouble making payments. Those below the threshold will qualify for up to $10,000 in canceled debt with an additional $10,000 for those who received Pell Grants, awarded only to undergraduate students displaying exceptional financial need. It must be emphasized that the smallest loans have the highest default rates. The average defaulted loan is just $8,000. For the estimated 27 million borrowers who received Pell Grants and will be eligible for additional aid, this relief would eliminate their student debt entirely. Borrowers that were long obscured from healthy credit could finally become active and impactful in the economy.

Targeting additional relief to Pell recipients will go miles in closing the racial wealth gap. Although it’s been sold as an added benefit of this relief plan, it is actually the plan’s most critical watermark. Millennials are a much more racially diverse generation than those that preceded them. White Americans have historically accumulated more wealth more rapidly than people of color, so a one-size fits all approach to student debt relief would be nearsighted.

Much of the criticism of this relief plan is one note. We don’t know what this debt cancellation will do to the inflation rate, or if it will encourage colleges to keep increasing costs in anticipation of future debt cancellations. But inflation and future education costs seem to be secondary detractors to a choir of critics harmonizing the words “what about me?”



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