Biden is addressing the root cause of the student debt crisis — conservative ideology
Republicans have spent generations gutting investments in public universities, and students are worse off for it.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. We begin with a piece by Noah about the historical content of Biden’s debt relief announcement, then close with notes from me about a new court filing pertaining to the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search. Cheers — Aaron
One of the supposedly good faith criticisms of Biden’s student loan forgiveness program is that it “does nothing to fix the root problem” of high college costs, as one investment fund CIO put it on Twitter. Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott made a similar complaint, arguing that if “we want real solutions” we need to “hold colleges and universities accountable to the American taxpayer and responsible for student outcomes.”
These objections diverge a bit on what the real problem is — is it high tuition, or poor outcomes for graduates? — but the general point has a certain ring of truthiness. Loan forgiveness provides relief after the fact. Surely it would be better to put in place policy that would prevent students from going into debt in the first place.
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The problem with this argument is that it assumes that that pesky root problem is economic. But it is not. The root problem with higher education costs is ideological. And Biden’s student loan plan, in acting on the principle that helping students is good for the nation, is a solid, important effort to address the political gridlock of neglect and cruelty which has created our higher education crisis.
A brief overview of skyrocketing tuition costs
If you want to lower college costs, you need to first ask what raised them. There is more than one culprit. But a big one is massive government disinvestment.
In 1964, tuition at four-year private school in current dollars cost about $1,160. Tuition at a public school cost just $261, well within the reach of most middle-class families without taking on much debt. Students could even work part-time and summer jobs and reasonably hope to afford most or all of their tuition.
But between 1980 and 2020, undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board rose 169 percent. In 1980, a four-year college (in inflation adjusted dollars) would cost an undergraduate an average of $10,231 a year. By 2020, that number was $28,774. Private nonprofit school costs in 2020 reached a staggering average of $48,965. That’s well beyond the means of almost everyone but the wealthy without significant aid or debt.
Private school increases are the result of a number of factors, including administrative bloat and the fact that colleges don’t disclose aid before acceptance so students can’t cost compare. The government also prevented students from discharging loans in bankruptcy, which means colleges have little incentive to make sure students can pay before burdening them with debt.
Affordable college for everyone, though, rests on the public system. And here the ballooning of college costs paralleled a long-term state disinvestment in higher education. According to The Race to the Bottom: State Fiscal Support for Higher Education: FY 1961 to FY 2019, state fiscal support for higher education compared to taxpayer income fell by about 50 percent between 1981 and 2019.
Unsurprisingly, disinvestment of public funds has paralleled the increase of student expenses. Over the past 20 years, at leading universities ranked by USA Today, private school tuition has gone up by 144 percent. But, in-state tuition and fees for public schools have grown by a staggering 211 percent, from $3,738 in 2002 to $11,631 in 2022.
State funding cuts are especially devastating since 86 percent of higher education direct spending comes at the state level. But Dervin Fergus, a professor at Ohio State University, makes a strong argument in the Washington Post that the crisis started not with the states, but with the federal government of President Ronald Reagan, backed by a conservative Congress.
The Reaganomics of ballooning student debt
Reagan slashed government spending on higher ed by 25 percent between 1980 and 1985; that included $594 million less for student assistance and $338 million less for Pell grants. Reagan also eliminated low-cost, low-interest subsidized federal loans to those with incomes under $32,000.
“Effectively, these changes shifted the federal government’s focus from providing students higher education grants to providing loans,” Fergus writes.
These cuts were ideologically driven. When Reagan was governor of California, his education advisor Roger A. Freeman worried that too many low-income people were attending college.
“We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat,” he said. “[W]e will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people.” Freeman argued that this could lead to fascism. (As Jon Schwarz at the Intercept notes, this is a “highly idiosyncratic” interpretation of the causes of fascism.)
This contempt for, and fear of, an educated populace persisted into Reagan’s presidency. Fergus explains that some in the Reagan administration argued that giving government support to students would weaken the power of parents over their children, upsetting the patriarchal status quo. Reagan’s Education Secretary Terrel Bell in his memoir compared students’ needing aid to the “welfare queen”— the Reagan-era racist slur meant to stigmatize poor Black women as lazy grifters.
Burying students in debt wasn’t an accident caused by some sort of technical policy mistake. It was a deliberate choice made by conservatives who saw the advancement of the young as a danger to supposedly natural and virtuous hierarchies of class, age, and, by implication, gender and race.
A world in which students were entitled to education was a world in which lots of people might see themselves as entitled to lots of things — freedom, self-government, happiness, meaningful work. Student debt keeps students (and not just students) in their place.
You can see this thinking in much of the opposition to student loan debt forgiveness. Indiana House Representative Jim Banks presented the argument in its crudest form when he tweeted that “Student loan forgiveness undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools at a time of dangerously low enlistments.”
But even those not willing to actually come out and say that student debt is vital to providing the military with cannon fodder were happy enough to express their contempt for young people and workers. Ted Cruz worried that the loan forgiveness program would lead “slacker baristas” to vote for Democrats. Ron DeSantis sneered that student loan forgiveness would help “gender studies” majors at the expense of truck drivers. As I discussed at Alternet, that’s a not very subtle worry that helping students will overthrow the natural order of things, elevating women and queer people over the salt-of-the-earth, stereotypically male working class (only 7 percent of truck drivers are women).
Biden’s popular debt relief program rights some of these wrongs
The root of the problem, then, isn’t just that tuition is too high. The root of the problem is that conservatives want tuition to be high because they want to use education costs as a method of social discipline. They justify that by caricaturing young people as feminized, racialized slackers who drain the public coffers and weaken public virtue.
Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, in contrast, is built on the idea that investing in young people is a way to create a stronger and kinder nation. Rallying Democrats to the cause of student loan forgiveness creates a political coalition dedicated to viewing education as an essential part of public life, rather than as a wasteful or dangerous excess. Fully 88 percent of Democrats agree with Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, and 52 percent of independents agree. (Overall approval for the entire population is 54 percent.) That’s a strong foundation for further reform — whether that means more debt forgiveness, something like Bernie Sanders’s free college program, forcing private schools to be more transparent about costs, allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy, or some combination of all of those.
Our student loan crisis was created by stigmatizing young people and their dreams. The loan forgiveness program says, clearly, that that stigma was immoral. In doing so, it strikes at the foundation of our crisis in college education. It doesn’t fix everything, but it points the way forward. Those who argue that the root of the problem is elsewhere are either misguided or don’t want the problem solved.
New DOJ filing looks bad for Trump
A new court filing pertaining to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago dropped late Tuesday evening and it certainly doesn’t look good for Trump or his defenders. The below image of classified documents found at the club — some with markings indicating they pertain to human source intelligence — tells the story.
A report from Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney provides key details:
The 36-page filing was the department’s most detailed account yet of its evidence of obstruction of justice, raising concerns that Trump and his attorneys sought to mislead investigators about the sincerity and thoroughness of their effort to identify and return highly sensitive records to the government.
“The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation,” Justice Department counterintelligence chief Jay Bratt wrote.
“That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the ‘diligent search’ that the former President’s counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter,” he added.
News of the filing was breaking as I was putting the finishing touches on this newsletter, but I’ll have more to say about it in future editions.
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Friday.