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The Demand for Student Debt Cancellation Should Be Paired With Tuition-Free Public College

The demand to cancel student debt is vital, but it would be politically dangerous to let it get detached from a broader left vision for higher education. We should unite it with another key working class demand: tuition-free public college and trade school.

The 44 million Americans who have student debt are constrained in a way that weakens their ability to turn down lower wages and sub-par terms of employment. (Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash)

Just earlier this year the nation was compelled to weigh the merits of a full student debt jubilee, as proposed by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Crucially, he proposed this reform alongside others to higher education, including tuition-free public college and trade school.

But Sanders lost, and while the issue of student debt has been successfully shuffled to the top of the Democratic Party agenda, full student debt cancellation is off the table, and eliminating financial barriers to education and training is no longer part of the dominant conversation. The debate is now between up to $50,000 of means-tested student debt forgiveness, as proposed by Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, and a maximum of $10,000, which President-elect Joe Biden finds more amenable, though he’s not sold on it.

Meanwhile, as the prospect of even modest executive action to relieve student debt becomes more realistic, the chorus of critics grows louder. They decry the policy as regressive, a giveaway to the higher earners who owe the majority of debt — which they do, even though lower earners with college degrees also have lots of student debt and have a harder time paying theirs back. Proponents of student debt cancellation have solid evidence that the policy is progressive, not regressive, but instead of simply bristling at these mounting criticisms, we would do well to take them seriously and strategize against them.

By letting Democrats silo off the student debt issue from the rest of the Left’s higher education agenda, we risk allowing the debt cancellation conversation to get lost in value judgments about individual educational choices and be submerged into the culture wars — an outcome that would imperil both the specific demand for cancellation and working-class politics generally. The best way to combat this dangerous drift is to resurrect the demand for tuition-free public college and university, and bring it up constantly as we push for student debt forgiveness.

Beyond the principle that the pursuit of education is a social right that should be affirmed in practice, there are good political and economic reasons to support student debt forgiveness. For one, the nation is verging on a student debt crisis that could do major damage to the economy and to the whole working class if left unaddressed, and on the flip side, large-scale student debt cancellation would dramatically stimulate the economy.

For another, the forty-four million Americans who have student debt are constrained in a way that weakens their ability to turn down lower wages and sub-par terms of employment, eroding their leverage and by extension tilting the labor market in employers’ favor — again to the detriment of the whole working class.

And finally, the overwhelming majority of people are sympathetic to the difficulties student loan borrowers face, including people who don’t have any college debt themselves. This last point, however, we shouldn’t take for granted.

The United States hasn’t yet seen a full-throttle campaign against student debt forgiveness. Imagine a well-funded and energetic Republican effort to convince people who have already paid off their student loans that debt forgiveness is a reward for laziness, and to persuade people who never went to college that the policy is a handout to people a few rungs up the income ladder.

This type of campaign could be very effective in shifting public opinion, and setting elements of the broad working class against each other — while the truly wealthy (who have expensive degrees and no student debt) and the private interests profiting from the crisis keep a low profile.

It’s also easy to imagine the Right taking advantage of the student debt issue to agitate against the specter of do-nothing liberal humanities majors, with all the stereotypes that entails, causing the conversation to sprawl out into the broader culture-war discourse.

The Right already conjures this boogeyman frequently and successfully, usually eliciting an in-kind defensive reaction from liberals, sidelining economic issues in favor of the usual debate about issues like whether social justice rhetoric on campuses has gone too far. Given the extent of inequality and exploitation in the United States, more polarization along culture instead of class lines is the last thing we need.

Luckily socialists and progressives have already put forward another demand that pairs thematically with student loan forgiveness and can help forestall its devolution into a divisive sideshow: tuition-free public college and trade school. By uniting the demand for student debt cancellation with the demand for tuition-free public college and trade school, we can keep the conversation focused on the divisions between the broad working class and the tiny capitalist minority, instead of allowing it to divide people who work for a living from each other.

The demand for tuition-free public college and trade school has a different class constituency built into it. It speaks to the millions of people who wish they could improve their own or their children’s economic prospects through higher education or training in a trade, but are disinclined to enroll because education and training are too expensive, and because student loans seem far too risky given their persistent economic precarity.

Tying the demand for tuition-free public college and trade school to the demand for student debt forgiveness won’t necessarily help convince people who already paid off their student loans to support forgiveness for everybody else. But it can win and maintain support from the larger group of people who at present struggle to envision higher educational opportunities for themselves or their children. Not only will that improve the prospects for student debt relief; it will abate a perilous slide of the working class toward the Right and the devolution of the conversation into a culture-war circus.

Every time proponents talk about student debt forgiveness, we should make an effort to also talk about tuition-free public college and trade school, funded by progressive taxes and open to all. We may not be able to pursue the demands in tandem at all times (student debt can be addressed by executive action, whereas tuition elimination is messier to implement), but we should rhetorically frame them as part of the same bundle of demands, the same vision for higher education. It’s not difficult: we can simply say that not only do we want to eliminate student debt but we also want to eliminate the reason for much of it: prohibitive tuition, which is also the reason many people don’t go to college or trade school to begin with.

Of course, not every working person wants to go to college or trade school, nor should they have to in order to attain a decent standard of living. We should therefore root these twin demands in a raft of others that includes ambitious public jobs programs, higher wage minimums, and the protection and proliferation of collective bargaining, as well as the public and universal provision of high-quality social services like health care, housing, and education.

Detached from a broader political vision of this kind, the demand to relieve student debt carries with it a political danger. We have a responsibility to approach that prospective danger soberly and strategically — for the sake of every person saddled with student debt, every person who might want to go to college or trade school but is reluctant to take out loans, and indeed every working-class person in this country.