How Biden Wrong About Penn, The Ivies, Student Debt, And America’s ‘College Problem’
A generation ago, when Bill Clinton wanted to prove to Central America that he was not a comic book leftist, he publicly criticized a previously obscure black hip-hop artist named Sista Souljah. Last week, President Joe Biden – still keen to hang on to his centrist good faith while pushing a predominantly progressive economic agenda – found his Sista Souljah moment in the hypothetical character of a young and presumably awake Penn grad demanding that taxpayers are retroactively funding their elite education.
Indeed, the new 46th US president let down chief healer schtick and appeared to get up when a young woman at her Milwaukee town hall meeting CNN last week told her that college debt of 1.7 trillion US dollars crushed the American dream and urged it. at least $ 50,000 per student in government debt cancellation, asking, “What will you do to make it happen?”
“I won’t make that happen,” Biden responded briskly, then the president – who rejoiced during the 2020 campaign that he would be the first in the Oval Office without an Ivy League degree since Ronald Reagan – moved on to a tortured explanation of why. He tried to present the $ 50,000 debt cancellation, supported by other leading Democrats, as “the idea that I’m saying to a community, ‘I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt, for people who went to Harvard. and Yale and Penn. Then he quickly turned to other laudable ideas like early childhood education and free community college, which – unlike federal debt action – would require action from our divided Congress.
Biden’s response was full of the math one honed in a 50-year career as an elected official, and the political logic is understandable. The University of Delaware graduate’s anti-elitist tone has always served him well, and fans of Biden, or realpolitik, would surely argue that the rejection of a key piece of the progressive checklist provides political cover. to the important leftist policy that is most critical to his presidency, the $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
“College problem”: But in fact, morally, and on the basis of an issue that is more important to the future of the American Dream than our new POTUS seems to realize, Biden got it wrong last Tuesday in Wisconsin – arguably, more wrong. than it has been about anything in the first month of a presidency seeking to undo the four-year stain of its distorted predecessor. If Biden – whose ability to learn, adapt, and grow is much of the reason he became president at 78 – understands that the nation’s “college problem” may determine whether his ultimate legacy is mixed or transformer.
Let’s start by noting the enormous irony buried under Biden’s response, which reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s famous line: not understand it. Biden may not have owned Ivy League sheepskin, but during his brief stint between vice-presidency and presidency he was paid over $ 900,000 by Penn for ill-defined work that has helped strengthen the University of Philadelphia and its public image. Now, the question is whether the Ivy seduction of a future president hasn’t also fostered a status quo view of higher education in America that does not match the real-world aspirations and struggles of a middle class. more and more desperate.
Here’s what people – but most of all, the President of the United States – need to know and understand about a student loan crisis that came out of nowhere to become one of our major crosses in the world. endure in the 21st century. First and foremost, the crushing debt burden – which topped $ 30,000 for the average student in the late 2010s, rising sharply since the turn of the millennium – has become the underlying problem for much of young Americans. It cripples their ability to do things that became easy for someone like Biden after graduating from a very low-tuition Delaware university in the 1960s – like buying a new home or getting married. The negative fallout on the U.S. economy affects everyone – not just the 37% who were able to earn a four-year degree.
But on February 16, Biden also presented Americans with an extremely misleading picture of the nature of the loan crisis. In fact, experts say only 0.3% of federal student borrowers attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, or Penn, the ones Biden cited as motivating his thoughts against sweeping debt relief. Yes, their sticker cost is the highest, but there are only eight Ivy in the middle of the vast sea of 6,000 American colleges and universities. Additionally, the much-criticized admissions policies at these elite schools favor privileged classes who do not need to take out loans, and – aided by their large endowments – Ivies also tend to offer scholarships rather than loans to the most modest. the children they accept.
So who are the carriers of the bulk of this $ 1.7 trillion grindstone? Many are the Joe Bidens of today – middle-class, working-class kids hoping to get a head start in public universities who have raised tuition fees since those 1960s to levels unthinkable today. Schools like Delaware or Penn State haven’t always made the best decisions – what about those salaries for senior administrators? – but they’ve also been squeezed by spending cuts from conservative state governments that appear to have plenty of money for prisons, while struggling to attract new students by trying to offer Ivy-caliber equipment. The reality is that 49% of current borrowers attend public universities, and they tend to owe more than a young adult graduate from Penn.
But even worse, Biden’s town hall response showed little to no understanding of how the weight of student loans disproportionately weighs on young black and brown Americans. Today, the average African American student is much more likely to take out loans than their white counterparts (86% vs. 59%) and graduates with $ 7,400 more in debt than their white peers. And their default rates are considerably higher – compounded by the financial and other burdens that make it harder to graduate from four years, or by the large numbers drawn by the exaggerated hype from for-profit schools.
The bet: The conservative “personal responsibility” argument about college debt tends to crumble as the roots of the crisis are digged deeper. The truth is, America has put the psychological equivalent of a gun to the heads of our middle class youth and given them the choice: to bet that a college degree will result in a job lucrative enough to repay these usurious loans … or face zero future, entry into the labor market without a diploma. Millions of people took the gamble, and for so many others it did not quite pay off. Eliminating their debt isn’t just a boost to the economy, it’s a nod to restoring morality.
Having said that, I think Biden partly understands something political that a lot of my left-wing friends who support massive debt cancellation seem blind. If the president used his executive power to write off $ 50,000 or more in individual university debt – but didn’t do much or nothing else on the broader issues facing the nation – the predictable outcry from those on the right could hold back the rest of its agenda. In a nation increasingly divided between college-educated Democrats and white non-college voters now at the heart of the GOP, the perception – again, based on misconceptions about who owns college debt – that Biden is rewarding his affluent voters could be a problem.
But what Biden and the leftists who differ from the president need to understand is that the answer is to go bigger, not smaller. True leadership requires a big deal to blow up America’s broken college framework, with a massive plan offering not only complete debt relief, but also helping prospective students (with public universities and colleges alike). community free and improved) and millions of young people who, for various reasons, do not set foot on campus, with extensive training and internships.
America’s biggest problem in 2021 is bitterness and resentment about who has the opportunity and who doesn’t – and who gets an unfettered college education is at the heart of this right now. Resentment towards the educated elites of those who derive from the current system (yes, along with racism and other factors) drove the neo-fascism of Donald Trump and the January 6 insurgents. Most Americans know this, but we seem too shocked to start thinking about how to resolve the issues that have caused our division. That’s why, in a time of overlapping crises like climate and infrastructure crumbling, we may not find the social cohesion to resolve them without solving “the college (and non-academia) problem. ) ”. Which means we can’t afford not to try. We owe it not only to the millennials who got ripped off and our children’s future American dreams, but also to all of us who are looking for ways to prevent a second American Civil War.
– Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.