Bar-On Brief: Candidates’ Student Loan Repayment Plans Miss The Mark

The 2020 Democratic primaries are just around the corner, and college students are one of the largest target groups for the candidates competing for the nomination. Candidates know that if they can energize liberal college students to come out to the polls, they can counter the older, conservative-leaning citizens who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. 

The candidates are speaking directly to college students by revealing plans to ease them out of student debt. While more than a handful of candidates are talking about free public education, some, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have gone on the record promising students that the government would repay anywhere from part of to the full amount of their existing student loans. 

These are short-term solutions designed to gain popularity points among students — who would gladly take free money — and win an election rather than do what is best for the country and its students.  

Put aside the tremendous cost and economic strain that would inevitably occur should the government truly pay back the banks with interest; forgiving student debt simply will do nothing to address how unaffordable a college education has become. It will exacerbate costs, causing private colleges and banks to applaud in greedy approval. Government repayment of student debt will incentivize colleges and universities to continue to raise tuition because that tuition’s payment will be guaranteed and incentivize private banks to give out more loans at a higher interest rate because the repayment risk will be minimized.

Sending someone to college for four years who is not ready for such a step and letting them graduate with an unhirable degree or a weak transcript puts that person in a worse position than they were before. Instead of entering the workforce directly after high school and beginning to earn money, that person now has accumulated four years of debt without working full-time. Repaying that person’s student debt does not solve the problem. 

Take Warren’s plan to repay $50,000 in student debt for everyone with a household income less than $250,000. Instead of putting that person in financial strain because of student loans, the government should incentivize them to find a job without going to college, perhaps by encouraging more affordable vocational schools and associates degrees and fighting the rising depletion of manual labor jobs due to automation. It would save both the individual and the government tremendous amounts of money. That person would also contribute to the economy instead of hindering it. 

Sanders’ plan is even more problematic. In June, he proposed wiping away all student debt for 44 million borrowers, regardless of household income. Not only does this give an enormous break for the wealthy — something he has spent his whole career advocating against — it goes against the very principle of contributing to the economy as opposed to taking from it. 

Repaying all loans regardless of profession and public service is not fair to those who have dedicated their lives to low-paying jobs that directly serve the country. Take, for example, the lawyer who dedicated her life to public service — and is sustained by public interest loan forgiveness — while she is drowning in $200,000 debt and earning under $60,000. Or the ROTC students who committed to four years of active military service and additional years on the reserves in exchange for a fully-funded college education. Certainly, not everyone should receive the same benefits as them. 

John F. Kennedy, former leader of the Democratic Party, said in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” College graduates can either demand their country pay back their bills, or they can actively invest their labor in the country in exchange for private benefits from the government. 

The rising cost of college tuition is problematic. It financially restrains graduates from getting married, having kids and maintaining their inalienable right to pursue happiness. Promising to repay thousands of dollars in loans with no questions asked is not the right solution. FAFSA and private college financial aid need to be revamped before the government promises to hand out money. Repaying loans should be the final step after a system is in place that ensures people can afford college without taking on tremendous amount of debt to begin with. 

Presidential candidates who come up with creative solutions to tackle the root of the problem — the sticker-price cost of college — will appeal both to college students and graduates who have already paid off their loans. 

Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief” runs every other Tuesday.