Student loan debt has reached unprecedented levels in the United States. In just 15 years, the amount of debt has tripled to over $1.5 trillion, surpassing credit card and auto debt. The burden is shared between roughly 44 million Americans. Moreover, according to the Pew Research Center, roughly a third of borrowers age 25 to 39 with a Bachelor’s believe that the cost of their degree outweighs its benefits.
The crisis has become a top issue for voters, and many presidential candidates have plans to address it. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have advocated for forgiving all or some debt, respectively. Meanwhile, this week President Trump made another call to end a popular student loan forgiveness program.
In Congress, several bills have been introduced to combat the issue. HR 3448 and S 1947, introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN-5) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) respectively, would both cancel all student debt. On the Republican side, S 2339 offers more modest reform; in addition to changing the accreditation system, it would require educational institutions to publish data on student loans and educational outcomes. However, none of these three bills have advanced since their introductions, all in the summer of 2019.
With stagnating wages and almost 30% of loan holders in delinquency or default, more aggressive loan forgiveness legislation will likely become a necessity. It’s apparent that an increasing number of loans will never be repaid, and keeping borrowers beholden to them harms our entire country. According to CNBC, it is becoming more common for people to postpone marriage, buying homes, and starting businesses — all activities that produce and signal a strong economy.
However, debt cancellation alone wouldn’t address the web of systematic flaws that perpetuate that debt. As enrollment has grown, state funding has deflated, leaving universities little choice but to pass on higher operating costs to students. After Congress expanded federal student loan programs in the 1970s, it became possible for families to foot the rising bill, which took pressure off states and schools to budget more effectively. Meanwhile, colleges have expanded non-instructional spending on services like counseling and healthcare. Though expensive, these services can be literally life-saving for the growing number of low-income students, who may not have access to care otherwise — demonstrating a bizarre dovetail connecting our healthcare crisis and our student loan crisis.
Ultimately, an issue this complex and urgent demands innovative policy. Sen. Sanders’ call to cancel debt and subsidize university education offers the most direct solution. Although it’s highly unlikely to gain congressional support in the near future, readers should remember that our government spends over half of its discretionary budget on the military every year (almost $700 billion in FY 2019). Our government has the resources to address this issue, and it has a moral obligation to do so.