The Supreme Court has gone so far to the right that no one was sure how they would rule on the wacko “independent state legislature” theory, which would undermine the constitutional order of checks and balances by giving legislatures unchecked control of elections. Fortunately, not all of the conservative justices march in lockstep with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, and the Court rejected that nonsense. Still, the recent session was bad enough.
Two decisions related to higher education particularly caught my attention. The Court’s rejection of affirmative action has garnered the most media attention and caused a great deal of justified consternation. Yet the other decision, blocking the Biden administration’s plan to cancel some student debt, is likely to have more far-reaching consequences. After all, the number of universities with highly selective admissions is not nearly as large as those, like my former employer, that are just looking to fill the seats with warm bodies.
While I have genuine sympathy for deserving students who won’t gain admission to elite schools, there are 43.6 million borrowers who owe a total of $1.774 trillion in student loan debt. Over 92% of those loans came from the federal government, and the average balance still owed on them is $37,717. A recent survey found that only 29% of borrowers feel confident that they can afford payments without significant belt-tightening, and 34% believe they will not be able to make payments at all when they restart.
The worst sufferers will be those who took out loans to start college but never finished their degrees. In many cases, those people came from underprivileged backgrounds and dropped either because they could not afford to continue or because poor academic preparation left them ill prepared for the demands of college life. And unlike other debtors, student loan borrowers cannot lighten their load through bankruptcy.
The fallout is not limited to those most severely affected. At a time when the price of housing is surging, many more young people will be shut out of the housing market by the burden of student loans. That’s bad for them, and it’s bad for the economy. It’s estimated that repaying student loans will suck $5 billion a month out of the economy that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.
The underlying source of this problem is the fact that college has gotten so expensive. I never had to take out loans to pay for my undergrad education because a small scholarship and my summer earnings covered my expenses. When I worked on government relations with my faculty union, we fought a losing battle to hold the state to its promise, written in statute, that it would pay two-thirds of the cost of an education at the state universities. Most of the time it was less than half.
That’s why it is so fantastic that the legislature last session made attendance at Minnesota’s public colleges tuition-free for residents from low- and middle-income families. While the Biden plan for loan forgiveness would be a great help to many, the long-term solution to the problem of student loan indebtedness is to be found in programs like Minnesota’s. With all the other great legislation that was passed this year, the importance of this has not gotten the attention it deserves.
With free tuition, I hope more students will feel like they don’t need to work long hours off campus and will be able to take fuller advantage of opportunities to learn. I hope more students who were never encouraged to see themselves as college material will give it a shot and discover their true potential. I hope that this opens doors for young people who didn’t have a lot of breaks growing up, and maybe it will even make a dent in the massive economic inequality that has opened up in this country.