Why Do You Give Care If Other People’s Student Debt Is Forgiven?
So you recently heard about the idea of student debt forgiveness and your first reaction was something like disgust, or maybe indignation. You heard that today’s students were just going to be let off the hook like the entitled babies that they are, never having to learn to be responsible. Pfft! You paid your debt! Why can’t they do the same?
To which I would ask, my dude: Why do you care?
But let’s talk about it.
When I was 17 years old, I voluntarily stepped into something like $75k in student debt, which might as well have been seven billion Stanley Nickels because it was an absolutely meaningless amount of money.
Not because I ~didn’t know the value of a dollar~ or whatever horseshit you’re going to assume. I have been working since I was 12 years old, thanks, and at that time was pulling down 6-hour shifts at a coffee shop after school.
No, it was meaningless because I’m pretty sure no one in my family had ever seen that kind of money. Because here’s something that I think folks with money don’t really fully understand: When you’ve never had money, large sums of it might as well be made of unicorn powder and pixie farts.
Stacks of cash are mythical, is what I’m saying. Any amount with more than one comma is just something you will never have and always owe. This is how people get trapped in debt in the first place — the numbers are so big and so unreal and so absolutely far beyond your possible reach that there’s no difference whether you throw a little more on the pile that they will eventually bury you with.
So when I was looking at going to a real, actual, grown-up university — something I really, really wanted to do! Because neither of my parents had been able to! And because I thought it was a ticket out of our special little nest hovering above the poverty line! Because that’s what literally every adult ever told me!— I took the advice of my high school counselor and just took out “as many loans” (her words) as I needed.
I actually ended up taking out quite a bit less. When I realized that at the annual salary for my chose profession — it was teaching at the time. You like teachers, don’t you? And you agree that they should be able to live like, dignified lives without mountains of debt?—I would be paying off my loans until I was about to retire, I made changes to reduce my overall borrowing. I stopped buying textbooks altogether and just…did without. I took summer classes that I paid for in cash, often showing up to 9am Biology 101 after having worked from 10pm to 6am at a diner, going home to nap and change out of a french-fry-stained t-shirt, and then riding the bus to campus.
And you know what? I still had an absolutely monstrous amount of debt, both public and private. Because college was and is really fucking expensive unless you have well-off parents, in which case you get a screamin’ deal because you can pay upfront.
How I Paid Off My Student Loans
No travel, lots of privilege, working weekends, and avoiding adulthood
My debt didn’t pay for anything but classes. I paid my own rent and lived an independent life outside of school to minimize the kind of interest snowball effect that made any I could afford in the first eight years after graduation about as effective as going fishing in a drained reservoir. In this way, I am a model of ~responsibility.~ I worked my ass off. And you know what? Eventually — through a lot of luck and privilege and misery and also not having children—I paid my loans off early.
I tell you all of this to set up what I’m going to tell you next: I worked really hard. I paid a lot of money. I was extremely unhappy. And I still 100% student debt forgiveness for those who haven’t paid theirs yet because I think it’s unconscionable to expect anyone else to go through that shit.
The reality of student debt is so much more grave than folks — especially folks who only owed like $3,000 and have wealthy parents—make it sound. It’s not as easy as “get a second job!” or “cut back on your Starbucks habit!”
Reader, I have not darkened the door of a Starbucks in a decade and I can assure you that is not why I was able to release the albatross from my neck. In fact, just real quick and for fun, let’s say:
You spend $10 per day, five days per week, on Starbucks. I have no idea what the going rate of a Frap is these days but that’s a nice round number.
That’s $50 per week, or about $200 per month. Yowza! Surely, that’s how much your student loans are, right?
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAH wooooooooooooo *breathe* HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH
Ok I’m done. Anyway, the average student loan borrower has close to $30k in debt. That means that the interest — JUST THE INTEREST—payments at the beginning of that loan are about $300. You’re paying almost $300 just for the pleasure of not being delinquent and not tanking your credit, but you are not any closer to paying off the loans.
This also doesn’t take into account the fact that it’s weird to assume anyone who has debt somehow does not deserve an extremely simple pleasure and instead must survive on beans from a can and hose water. But if you’re the kind of person who thinks that just because you paid off your debt then everyone should have to, I don’t think that will resonate with you. You probably also think you’ve earned literally everything in your life which is, I can assure you, not true.
So the conventional wisdom for how other people can pay off their debt? It’s bad. It’s bad wisdom. Dare I even say, it is unwise. Which means we have to acknowledge that student debt — a phenomenon that is relatively new, created by humans, and completely able to be dismantled if we wanted to!—is a system that doesn’t work. There is no such thing as “working your way through college” anymore and the fantasy that somehow there is creates further structural inequalities. If you believe that everyone should be able to pay off their student debt, you don’t actually understand student debt as a system.
Here’s something else to consider: You may imagine a PSL-swilling Marketing Intern when you think of the person who’s pulling off this amazing government-assisted scam. You would be incorrect. From Inside Higher Ed:
Roughly 3.6 million parents had taken out $96 billion in outstanding loans under the federal Parent PLUS program as of late last year, the study from Trellis Research said. Parent PLUS loans now account for about a quarter of total federal lending for undergraduates, a share that grew from 14 percent in 2012–13.
An increasing portion of parents also are struggling to pay off these loans. For example, the five-year default rate grew to 11 percent for parents who took out PLUS loans in 2009, up from 7 percent for the 1999 cohort, research has shown.
Instead of giving Megan in Sales a hard time about how she’s a slacker, pop onto Slack and ask how many of your peers are still paying off the student loans they took on for their kids — or even themselves!—and then consider whether or not you think this system is working.
I would posit that the name “student debt” is part of what fuels these incorrect assumptions; when folks hear it, they immediately think about college students, and thus, believe that it’s somehow frivolous. But the reality is that these loans — which, again, only became A Thing in the last two generations—aren’t money being spent on silly things like English degrees (cough cough). These loans have become a necessary part of entering the workforce.
I once heard Washington State Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib say that when we say that “college isn’t for everyone,” usually what we mean is “college isn’t for poor people.” We never say “college isn’t for everyone” to the kinds of parents who were, say, buying their way into USC and thus taking important placements in sports from less-wealthy applicants.
This seems important. Because if your immediate reaction to student debt is “well why did you even go to college?” instead of “why in the name of capitalism is college so goddamn expensive?” you have probably also internalized the idea that college isn’t for everyone, and that the people who shouldn’t go to college are the exact people who need to go to college to make any attempt to level the playing field.
And if that opinion — that college is for rich kids—doesn’t stack up with your ideology? But you’re still mad that other people are getting their debt forgiven but you haven’t? Then I would ask where the breakdown is. Because if, in theory, you do believe that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to, then you kind of have to accept the terms that make that possible. And the terms that make that possible include forgiving the existing debt and working toward reducing the overall debt load in the future.
Noah Tannen responded to me on Twitter with this absolutely perfect metaphor and I think it really does a good job of making this point:
Like, I’m a vegetarian. And plenty of times, I have walked into a Tiny Food Event to find that there are no suitable meat-free snacks. Now, just because I have to stop at Taco Time for a Crisp Bean on the way home doesn’t mean I’m also going to take all of the sliders and bacon-wrapped-whatevers and pour gasoline on them and light them on fire. I’m not going to ensure that no one else gets an appetizer just because there isn’t one for me. Because that would be truly deranged.
In a situation like the student debt crisis — or the crisis of meat hipster catering companies—someone else getting a good thing doesn’t take anything from you. You don’t lose anything when other people gain something.
Another example? Marriage equality.
A billion years ago when I was phone-banking for Washington’s marriage equality initiative, I remember numerous people telling me that they didn’t want the gays to get married because it would somehow make their marriage worse. And I was never 100% sure what to say to these people because how do you reason with something that’s this unreasonable?
Do married lesbians sneak into your home at night and make Stu forget to take the dog out for his last walky-walk and then he piddles on the rug? Do bisexual people who are legally wed fill up the TiVo with episodes of Grey’s Anatomy? Of course not. Queer marriages do literally nothing to straight people except get free rent in their minds because what if they DID do something??
Other people’s student debt load doesn’t do anything to yours. It won’t make you have to pay more. It won’t take away the pride you should have (and you should!) about paying off your own.
This is not a zero sum game —and if it is, the two teams are Student Loan Companies And People Who Make Money From Them and Everyone Else. Student loan providers were the recipients of bail-outs following the crash in 2007 and the recession in 2009. They got government money. Their debt was forgiven. And that’s who you should be mad about.
You did a great job paying off your student loans. You really should feel good about that. But your reward for that isn’t punishing everyone else. It’s having paid off your loans so they’re not siphoning away at your livihood any longer. Making other borrowers continue to pay toward faceless corporations isn’t sticking it to anyone but your fellow college graduates, and it’s certainly not going to address the system on the whole.
I get it. You paid off your debt and now someone else is getting something for free or for less money than you paid. That does feel kind of crappy! But what if someone else had lobbied for you to get a break? Wouldn’t that have been dope? And what’s wrong with being that person for someone else?