I’ve been writing this column for almost five years now and I’ve touched on a lot of controversial topics. The subject that draws the most amount of angry comments? Student loan debt, and the potential forgiveness thereof. So when President Biden announced his plan to cancel between $10,000 and $20,000 of student loan debt for borrowers making under $125,000 per year, my first thought was: “Did I get Pell Grants during undergrad?” (Reader, I did.)

My second thought was: “People are going to be really mad about this.”

I’ve been trying to figure out why the topic of student debt forgiveness draws such vitriol. Why does the thought of forgiving educational debt piss people off so much more than, I don’t know, the Sackler family keeping their OxyContin fortune through bankruptcy, despite kick-starting the opioid epidemic? Or the fact that nobody on Wall Street got punished for the subprime mortgage meltdown? Or the military-industrial complex as a whole?

I think that the answer lies not in the classroom but in the concept of class. America likes to think of itself as a classless society or, at least, a country in which 90 percent of the population is somehow “middle class.” And it’s true that class in America can be harder to quantify than in other countries – we don’t have titles of nobility. But education has always been the primary vehicle by which Americans can move up the class ladder. And educational debt indicates that someone tried to reach for a higher rung on that ladder without the upfront wealth to pay for it. And Americans, as far as I can tell, really hate that. The American dream is allegedly one of “upward mobility” but we respond pretty poorly to evidence of striving. We don’t like the idea of someone being uppity, of trying to better themselves. Of not being satisfied with the station and circumstances they were born into.

The reason I think the rage at the idea of student debt cancellation is a class backlash (a “classlash,” if you will) is that the actual arguments I’ve seen articulated against it are pretty garbage. The majority of arguments against any amount of student loan forgiveness boil down to “it’s not fair.” And I’m sorry, but that’s just a childish answer. Life isn’t fair. The universe is a chaotic and unforgiving place. Is it fair that my dad paid taxes into Medicare for 30 years only to die at the age of 59 without receiving any benefits from the program? Should my family have gotten all that money back? What about the mortgage interest deduction? Should taxpayers who rent be paying for tax breaks for wealthier homeowners?

I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s bad decisions. And I agree. Getting a master’s degree was probably a bad choice for me. But you know who else’s bad decisions we’re all paying for? George Bush’s. My degree was expensive, but it didn’t lead to the destruction of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State group. For that matter, why is the government subsidizing dairy farmers’ bad decisions to overproduce cows’ milk, which nobody wants to drink anymore? Should a hardworking, heavily subsidized dairy farmer’s taxes go towards paying off some of my student loans? Should my taxes go towards subsidizing dairy products that I can’t even consume because I’m lactose intolerant? Are you telling me that not every government program benefits every citizen equally? What, are we living in a society or something?

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“Student loan debt” isn’t a black hole in the middle of the economy that hardworking taxpayers shovel money into. The bonds of debt are held by regular people. Like me. I have $69,000 in student loan debt and I’m a hardworking taxpayer (both income AND property taxes, thank you very much).

You know who did everything right and still ended up with five figures of student loan debt? My younger sister. She went to an in-state school (the University of Maine – go Black Bears!). She worked two jobs all through the school year and the summers; bought all her textbooks secondhand; saved money by living off-campus and even by living at home rent-free for a semester (in the spring of 2020, when everything was virtual). She received federal Pell Grants, state financial aid and several prestigious scholarships, including the Gilman Scholarship, which allowed her to do a study-abroad program in Kosovo, and the U.S. Senate Youth Program scholarship from the Hearst Foundation, which came with a $10,000 prize.

And yet. She graduated this spring with five figures of debt, all of which will be wiped out by President Biden. Tell me, what else was she supposed to do? Ask her family for money? We didn’t have any to give. When our dad died, he left a hole in our hearts and our bank account. What bad choices did she make? Why should she have to start her adulthood with a monthly tax around her neck that her wealthier peers will never have to worry about?

I’ve been thinking about this loan forgiveness as being like an emergency blood transfusion. A transfusion will have different effects on every patient, depending on the severity of their injury. For some, it will bring them right back up to baseline; others require further intervention. But if you don’t stop the patient’s bleeding, the transfusion becomes useless. They’ll just keep losing blood. So the people who are saying that this debt jubilee won’t get to the root of the problem are absolutely right. I think we need a massive re-investment of public funds towards public higher education. Maine, as usual, is leading the nation, with two free years of community college. To pull off the massive change we need, we have to stop thinking of higher education as an individually purchased class token and start thinking of it as a public good.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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