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Friday 22 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Larry Donnelly Biden’s student debt initiative is a welcome drop in the ocean
Our columnist looks at the prohibitive cost of education in the US and Biden’s recent efforts to address this.

“AMERICA IS THE land of opportunity.”

“The United States is the greatest country in the world.”

“We are the freest people on the planet.”

Anyone who grew up there, as I did, is accustomed to elected officials of all ideological stripes parroting platitudes like these.

Indeed, they are an intrinsic part of the civic religion that is inculcated in us from birth. At the heart of this dogma is American exceptionalism. As outlined by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, it presumes that “America’s values, political system and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration” and that “the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.”

‘Fear and scepticism’

While long scorned and mocked by foreigners, these once sacred tenets are now questioned increasingly by American citizens who polls consistently show, are disenchanted for a variety of reasons and do not believe that their offspring will have it as good as they do. Politicians on the left and the right have played successfully to their fear and scepticism.

Of all the myriad factors contributing to what has been termed the inexorable decline of the US, extraordinary income inequality – the appalling gap between what those at the top and at the bottom of the pay scale earn – is probably the most potent.

Many of the routes to economic security and the middle or upper middle class lifestyle that was traditionally the touchstone have been rendered impassable by the twin forces of technology and globalisation.

In 2022, the sole navigable path to prosperity for the vast majority is through further education – at least to bachelor’s degree level. Herein lies what is, in my view, the biggest of all the conundrums facing the US at present. And in this regard, America truly is exceptional, but not in an enviable way.

Prohibitive cost of education

The cost of higher education stateside, when compared to just about everywhere else, is, to put it bluntly, extortionate. Tuition, including room and board, exceeds $70,000 annually at the nation’s elite colleges and universities.

That may not be news. It is an objectively staggering sum nonetheless. Academic leaders respond to complaints by citing the generous financial aid packages they offer. A relatively minuscule number benefit wholly from no-strings-attached largesse; the rest are saddled with enormous debt on graduation.

Last month, President Joe Biden, following intensive negotiations, announced that those paying back the loans they had to sign up for in order to enrol in their chosen courses will be eligible for up to $20,000 in forgiveness, provided they are making less than $125,000 per year. This plan has been critiqued by some Democrats, who claim that it doesn’t go far enough and assailed by Republicans, who allege it is indirectly penalising those who didn’t borrow or went into an occupation or alternative training straight after secondary school. Lawsuits will be filed in an attempt to stop it.

The president’s is an undeniably modest proposal. It doesn’t get to the crux of the matter: How to call a halt to an inimitably American rip-off? In this vein, one wonders why politicians there haven’t tackled the outrageous price tag of higher education more aggressively when it is a ready-made vote getter. That said, Biden is seeking to grant a modicum of relief to some who are in dire straits.

Accordingly, this move clearly warrants support as a small step down what will be a lengthy road. Two compelling first person accounts attest as to why.

Timothy Scalona writes in the Boston Globe that, having been “thrust into homelessness,” his “journey to a college education began on the bathroom floor of a hotel room.” Next to the toilet, he took refuge from heated arguments – “usually when our food stamp balance ran low” – to draft application essays. He completed a BA and an MA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, yet emerged with $40,000 of debt.

Now in his second year at Suffolk University Law School (my own alma mater), he expects to receive a Juris Doctorate in 2024 owing a total of $160,000. The legal profession is crying out for individuals with Scalona’s lived experience and manifest determination. Few could assert that they would be better placed to empathise with clients in serious difficulty. What is Scalona’s reward for “pulling himself up by his bootstraps”? A massive liability hanging over his head for the foreseeable future.

And in the New York Times, Harvard Professor Susan Dynarski furnishes valuable historical perspective. During the 1970s, her sisters attended the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Tuition, excluding room and board, was approximately $600. Allowing for inflation, that is the equivalent of $3,605 today. But UMass-Boston is charging $16,000!

Additionally, 375 hours of minimum wage work five decades ago would raise the funds necessary for a year of study. Currently, an employee must put in three times that amount of labour to accumulate $16,000.

Dynarski brings into focus two considerations that vitiate the arguments of those on the political right against student debt forgiveness. First, the explosion in the price of going to college or university in America is astounding. Those who have finished recently are bearing a burden that is entirely distinguishable from their predecessors.

‘Slacker baristas’

Second, although Senator Ted Cruz may ridicule “slacker baristas” at coffee shops, the reality is that young people on low wages have a tiny fraction of the purchasing power than they did in the past. They can’t possibly pay their tuitions – and, often, make their subsequent loan repayments – by themselves.

As a result, despite their respective reservations vis-à-vis President Biden’s idea, Susan Dynarski and Timothy Scalona endorse it as they await the radical surgery that is desperately needed and well overdue. Amidst all the talk of what ails America, this issue regularly escapes notice. It should be front and centre. Here’s hoping that Biden’s push is only the beginning.

Closer to home, legitimate concerns abound this September about housing and fees that are much more expensive than in fellow European Union member states as third-level students return to campuses around Ireland. I feel deeply for them and for their parents, who are justifiably angered and frightened as they endeavour to do what’s best for their children.

On the other hand, their relations in the US, without wishing to appear unsympathetic, would gently tell them that they don’t know how lucky they are.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is published by Gill and available online and in bookshops.


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