One of the more prevalent and strident criticisms leveled at President Joe Biden’s landmark order on student loan forgiveness is that it simply isn’t “fair.”
It isn’t fair to those who worked hard to diligently pay off their student loans, and it isn’t fair to those workers who never attended college or borrowed money but whose taxes will nevertheless fund Biden’s initiative.
Exploring and understanding the concept of fairness, particularly in this context, is actually crucially important if we are to move forward as a nation toward a more equitable, or fairer, culture, and political economy.
So, let’s think though this concept of fairness—and the consequences for how we define it—in the context of Biden’s historic order.
For those who argue it’s not fair to help pay off the loans of those still holding college debt when many paid off their college loans—and struggled to do so—without government assistance, let’s think about the ramifications of this stance not just on an individual level but from a larger historical and collective perspective.
Is Biden’s order good for the nation as a whole? Does it constitute historical progress towards a more equitable society, a more perfect union?
The attitude or stance that “I didn’t get this help and had to struggle so other people shouldn’t either” is one that occludes historical progress and, arguably, undermines the well-being of the nation itself, hindering the development of our collective capacity to take care of ourselves and build a strong economy.
As an analogy, take the Affordable Care Act. We know that investment in the nation’s health actually saves Americans money and reduces healthcare costs overall, and we know that collectively investing in the health of each individual American increases economic productivity and creates overall a stronger and more efficient economy.
For folks to say, “Well,I get my health insurance through work, and I don’t want my taxes to help pay for others,” is not only self-defeating, but it constitutes an attitude that threatens to halt progress that benefits all.
What if people had said that about civil rights? “Well, I endured workplace discrimination, and I managed to make a living. I don’t know why this next generation should have civil rights protections.”
Frankly, from this broader perspective, it should be easy to see that the elements of Biden’s order, which aren’t just about forgiving debt, are precisely about creating greater fairness and equity when it comes to access to higher education in a way that benefits the nation as a whole.
I teach at a small state university with a relatively affordable tuition (in part because state-supported), which has been cited for enabling students to graduate with little to no debt. The university provides access to higher education to many who otherwise might not be able to attend college and for whom taking on any debt is formidable and prohibitive. Still, we lose students over time because staying in college is still a financial struggle.
When we consider the issue of fairness taking into consideration these kinds of students, I think we need to see that fairness and equity should mean creating conditions that enable all Americans, regardless of their economic standing in our society characterized by gross economic inequality, to access higher education and develop their skills and abilities so they can contribute to American society to their fullest.
If a prospective student knows they will have help with debt or that their loan payments will be capped at 5% of their income and be limited to twenty years (a provision in Biden’s order), attending college looks more affordable and possible.
And every American benefits from having a more educated population.
Here let me invoke author Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
When I think of my own university, I see many students go on to top graduate and professional schools and otherwise do great research and make great contributions to the world, who otherwise might not have been able to do so, which would have been a loss to our world.
Indeed, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, will be returning as an alumna of the university to speak. We have many such examples of success, as do the many other universities like ours.
Yet, my state, Illinois, has significantly decreased state support for higher education over the past two decades, which has meant tuition increases.
Biden’s plan is an effort to create fairness and equity when it comes to access to higher education.
And while criticism of Biden’s plan has tended to pose college grads as earning high incomes, suggesting this is some kind of white-collar welfare administered on the backs of working-class Americans, nothing could be further from the truth.
My adult step-child runs works as outdoor education teacher at a Montessori school, a position that requires a college degree. They earn under twenty-dollars per hour. And there are many jobs upon which the well-being of our society depends that require a college degree that earn very moderate salaries, less than jobs in the trades. We can say that these graduates could make different career choices, but that argument neglects the fact that as a society we need people with the training and education they get in college to do important work to make the world go.
Additionally, the lines dividing working and middle classes in U.S. society is ill-defined, at best blurry and increasingly illusory. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act aimed to tax the wealthiest who received a trillion dollar tax cut from Trump. We shouldn’t be pitting a shrinking if not illusory middle-class against a working class, but creating fairness by taxing the wealthy and corporations who benefit from the educated workers our educational system produces.
And it’s not either/or. Biden has been the strongest supporter of unions we’ve seen in the White House in a long time. He hasn’t been ignoring the working class and serving a college-educated middle class at their expense. He has served both, working with a broader view of fairness for all.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.