This past summer, while many students had just wrapped up a difficult transition to virtual education during their second semester of the academic year, the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents decided to approve a tuition increase of 1.9% for the upcoming year. For many, that increase — however small it may have been — was a kick to the face. An increase in our financial burden was an unnecessary edition to the agenda during an already stressful pandemic.
As we are approaching the one year mark since the Board approved that change, and because on March 18, the U.S. Department of Education announced they will forgive $1 billion in student loan debt, let’s consider the implications for the students — both at the University and elsewhere — who have been struggling with tuition costs and subsequent loans.
It is important to note that said announcement is a bit deceiving — debt relief will be given to 72,000 students who attended institutions that closed abruptly or were involved in cases of fraud, but not to students at most reputable universities. For those of us who are not in that category, a proposal is in the works for $10,000 in student debt to be universally forgiven.
Student loan debt has skyrocketed in recent years and we should be happy, to a certain extent, that President Joe Biden is aware of the problem. U.S. student loan debt is currently estimated to be around $1.7 trillion dollars, distributed among a collective of 45 million borrowers in 2021. It is now considered “the second-highest consumer debt category,” according to Forbes.
So where has the problem come from? Demand for college is higher than ever before, but instead of figuring out ways to make college more affordable for students, our country has adopted a rather prodigal loan policy that simply lends money to students to make that desired education affordable — even if it isn’t.
This mindset is the crux of the multi-billion dollar crisis we are in. It is an economic injustice of sorts — the government is distributing loans to fund the belief that the investment of higher education will eventually be worthwhile, while for millions of Americans the only reality is simply debt.
This reality is why the University’s recent tuition hike should not be unexpected. Theoretically, there are no limits on what schools can charge.
While this culture of ever-increasing tuition is certainly frustrating for the average student, at the moment, it seems that this trend is only going to continue. In the meantime, tangible solutions to forgiving student-loan debt need to be pushed.
Thus, we need to be thinking critically about our representatives’ currently proposed plans, as Biden’s isn’t the only one up for debate. The current plans are as follows: Biden’s $10,000 plan, a differing Democratic plan to cancel $50,000 per borrower and the rather radical plan to cancel all debt, as pushed by progressive legislators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Biden’s current stance is that the $50,000 will not happen, and thus neither will Sanders’s. After the President’s short and to-the-point statement that he would not consider such a plan, he followed it up with some more explanation. He cited the private versus public institutional difference in student-loan debt that made a $50,000 minimum unjust for those not attending Ivy League-like universities. But, it seems as though some of Biden’s arguments may be unfounded and congressional members, seeking to push the $50,000, do not seem to be willing to concede as a result.
Regardless, if we do not act swiftly, the severe economic and racial disparities that have resulted from student loan debt are only going to be exacerbated . Due to already existing inequities, Black families in the United States tend to take on student loan debt at both higher rates and in riskier forms compared to their white counterparts. Essentially, debt is pushing Black borrowers into greater financial risk. At this rate, various economists predict student loan debt will total as much as $3 trillion by the end of the next decade. That figure is guaranteed to be riddled with significant racial and socioeconomic inequities.
Thus, the argument I hope to make clear to both legislators and university officials is two-fold. First, for legislators: While short-term solutions such as various degrees of debt-relief plans are definitely going to make some impact, our thoughts need to be oriented toward long-term action. The crisis is not going to be halted by a $10,000 proposal or even a $50,000 one; think critically about the problems we face and how to redirect our current model.
Second, to the universities: Acknowledge the tuition crisis and how our loan structure is only serving to increase the problem. Start working on ways to decrease tuition and make the investment in higher education one that everyone can afford.
Neither task is an easy one to pursue, but economists have warned us of the disaster on our hands and the long-term implications of it. It seems, at the moment, there is no perfect solution, but that does not mean there is no solution at all. We must work alongside legislators and fix the crisis permanently, not just for the short-term.
As a first step, tuition hikes during the middle of a pandemic are likely not a strategic solution to addressing this dilemma. This summer, let’s avoid those.
John Tumpowsky can be reached at email@example.com.