A generation ago, when Bill Clinton wanted to prove to Middle America that he wasn't a cartoon leftist, he publicly bashed a previously obscure Black woman hip-hop artist named Sister Souljah. Last week, President Joe Biden — ever eager to cling to his centrist bona fides while pushing a mostly progressive economic agenda — found his Sister Souljah moment in the hypothetical persona of a young and presumably woke Penn grad demanding taxpayers retroactively finance their elite education.
Indeed, America's new 46th president dropped the healer-in-chief schtick and seemed to get his back up when a young woman at his Milwaukee CNN town hall meeting last week told him that the U.S. $1.7 trillion college debt is crushing the American dream and urged at least $50,000 per student in government debt cancellation, asking, "What will you do to make that happen?"
"I will not make that happen," Biden responded sharply, and then the president — who reveled during the 2020 campaign in the fact that he'd be the first in the Oval Office without an Ivy League degree since Ronald Reagan — pivoted to a tortured explanation of why. He tried to frame the $50,000 debt cancellation, backed by other leading Democrats, as "the idea that I say to a community, 'I'm going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.' " Then, he rapidly veered away to other laudable ideas like early childhood education and free community college, which — unlike federal action on debt — would require action from our divided Congress.
Biden's answer was chock full of the calculation that one sharpens in a 50-year career as an elected official, and the political logic is understandable. The anti-elitist tone from the University of Delaware grad has always served him well, and fans of Biden, or of realpolitik, would surely argue that rejecting a key item on the progressive checklist offers political cover for the important, left-leaning policy that's most critical for his presidency, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
But factually, morally, and on the basics of an issue that's more important to the future of the American dream than our new POTUS seems to realize, Biden got it all wrong last week in Wisconsin — arguably, more wrong than he's been about anything in the first month of a presidency looking to undo the four-year stain of his warped predecessor. Whether Biden — whose capacity to learn, adapt and grow is largely the reason he became president at age 78 — figures out the nation's "college problem" may determine whether his ultimate legacy is mixed, or transformative.
Let's start by noting the huge irony buried beneath Biden's response, which reminded me of Upton Sinclair's famous line, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Biden might not hold an Ivy League sheepskin, but during his brief stint between the vice presidency and the presidency he was paid more than $900,000 by Penn for ill-defined work that helped to pump up the Philadelphia university and its public image. Now, one has to wonder if the Ivy seduction of a future president didn't also foster a status quo view of higher ed in America that doesn't comport with the real-world aspirations and struggles of an increasingly desperate middle class.
Here's what people — but, first and foremost, the president of the United States — need to know and understand about a student loan crisis that came from nowhere to become one of our major crosses to bear in the 21st century. First and foremost, the crushing debt burden — which topped $30,000 for the average student in the late 2010s, up sharply since the turn of the millennium — has become the foundational problem for a large swath of young Americans. It cripples their ability to do things that came easily for someone like Biden after graduating from a super-low-tuition University of Delaware in the 1960s — like buy a new home or get married. The negative fallout on the U.S. economy affects everyone — not just the 37% who've been able to earn a four-year degree.
But on Feb. 16, Biden also offered Americans a grossly misleading picture of what the loan crunch is all about. In fact, experts say that just 0.3% of federal student borrowers attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale or Penn, the ones cited by Biden as motivating his thoughts against sweeping debt relief. Yes, their sticker cost is the highest, but there are just eight Ivies amid the vast sea of 6,000 U.S. colleges and universities. What's more, the much-criticized admissions policies at these elite schools favor the privileged classes that don't need to take out loans, and — aided by their large endowments — the Ivies also tend to offer scholarships instead of loans to the lower-income kids they do accept.
So who are the carriers of the bulk of this $1.7 trillion millstone? Many are today's Joe Bidens — middle- and working-class kids hoping to get a leg up at public universities that have jacked up tuition since those 1960s to unthinkable levels today. Schools like Delaware or a Penn State haven't always made the best decisions — what's with those salaries for top administrators? — but they've also been squeezed by spending cuts by conservative state governments that seem to have lots of dollars for prisons, while struggling to attract new students by trying to offer Ivy-caliber amenities. The reality is that 49% of current borrowers attend public universities, and they tend to owe more than a young adult with a degree from Penn.
But even worse, Biden's town hall answer showed little or no understanding of how the weight of student loans falls disproportionately on young Black and brown Americans. Today, the average African American college student is much more likely to take out loans than their white counterparts (86% vs. 59%) and graduates with a debt $7,400 larger than their white peers. And their default rates are dramatically higher — compounded by the financial and other burdens that make it harder to complete their four-year degree, or by the large numbers enticed by the overinflated hype of scammy for-profit schools.
The conservative "personal responsibility" argument about college debt tends to collapse when one digs deeper into the roots of the crisis. The truth is that America put the psychological equivalent of a gun to the head of our middle-class youth and gave them a choice: Gamble that a college degree will result in a job lucrative enough to pay back these usurious loans ... or face zero future, entering the job market without a diploma. Millions took the bet, and for so many it didn't quite pay off. Eliminating their debt isn't only a boost for the economy, it's a nod to restoring morality.
Having said all that, I do believe that Biden partially understands something politically that many of my friends on the left who support a massive debt forgiveness seem blind to. If the president did use his executive power to wipe out $50,000 or more of individual college debt — but did little or nothing else about the broader higher ed issues facing the nation — the predictable outcry from those on the right could hold back the rest of his agenda. In a nation increasingly split between college-educated Democrats and the noncollege white voters now the core of the GOP, the perception — again, based on mistaken ideas about who holds college debt — that Biden is rewarding his affluent voters could be a problem.
But what Biden and leftists who differ from the president need to understand is that the answer is to go bigger, not smaller. Real leadership demands a grand bargain to essentially blow up the broken framework of college in America, with a massive plan offering not only comprehensive debt relief but also to help both future students (with free and improved public universities and community colleges) and the millions of youth who for a variety of reasons don't set foot on campus, with expanded training and internships.
America's biggest problem in 2021 is the bitterness and resentment over who gets opportunity and who doesn't — and who gets an unfettered college education is currently at the core of that. Resentment at educated elites from those adrift from the current system (yes, along with racism and other factors) drove the neo-fascism of Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Most Americans know this, but we seem too shell-shocked to begin to start thinking about how to fix the problems that caused our divide. That's why in a time of overlapping crises like climate and crumbling infrastructure, we may not find the social cohesion to solve them without fixing "the college (and noncollege) problem." Which means we can't afford not to try. We owe that not just to the millennials who got ripped off and to future American dreams of our children, but to all of us looking for ways to prevent a second U.S. civil war.
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.