Student Debt Robs Our Country of Young Geniuses
Ever since it was taken over by far-right justices nominated by Donald Trump, the Supreme Court has been eroding the quality of life for Americans. Now it looks like it could happen again, if the Court decides against President Biden’s plan for student debt relief.
Oral arguments in the case happened in late February. Litigants, backed by far-right politicians, are trying to derail the Biden plan that would significantly reduce or even eliminate debt for millions of lower-income people across the country. Nearly half of Latino borrowers and a quarter of Black borrowers would have their entire student debt relieved.
I sincerely hope the Court will not rule against this program, because debt relief would be good not just for individual students and graduates – it would be good for the country as a whole. Here's why.
We have a great tradition of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit in the US, stretching from Benjamin Franklin to Mark Zuckerberg and beyond. But what would have happened if our best-known inventors in recent decades had been weighed down by a massive student loan that they had to work off for five, 10 or even 20 years? How long would they have to be employees rather than innovators, robbing us and the rest of the world of their contributions?
That certainly wasn’t a problem for Zuckerberg, whose father famously offered to pay either for him to go to Harvard or to have his own McDonald’s franchise. (And yes, Zuckerberg did drop out of Harvard, but for most of us that would be a bad idea.) Meanwhile millions of hardworking students, including a disproportionately high number of Black, brown and female students, are saddled with debt that will keep them working to pay it back for many years.
And because of that, it’s highly likely that this debt crisis is costing us the next entrepreneurial genius, including the next (possibly Black or female) Mark Zuckerberg. With tens of thousands of dollars in debt hanging over their heads, many young people can’t think seriously about starting a business, or maybe a nonprofit, of their own. This debt is also linked to the issue of fewer young people being able to become homeowners; in the past, a house was often collateral for entrepreneurs raising money for a startup company.
That’s a big loss for the country. But there’s more. The debt crisis is also costing us jobs – the jobs that youthful innovators would create. After all, nearly half of Americans work in small businesses, the kinds of companies that young business owners would start out building. And it’s reasonable to assume that this debt burden is harming the economy in other ways. Paying off debt gobbles up discretionary income. Debt relief could put money back in college graduates’ pockets and give consumer spending a boost.
The Supreme Court case that will be decided later this year hinges on a legal argument about the law under which the debt relief plan was created, the HEROES Act. In a nutshell, conservatives have turned the plan's enormous economic benefit into a legal argument against its legitimacy. They argue that debt relief that extensive is a "major question" of policy that goes beyond what the HEROES Act provided for. They also argue that the law permits the government to relieve student debt only if it doesn’t leave the borrowers “better off” than they were before. Of course, which individuals are “better off,” and by how much, is always arguable. And there are lots of things that government does to make some segments of society better off than others – but that is a bigger conversation.
What is clear right now is that relieving student debt – and solving the problem of the high cost of education overall, also a bigger conversation -- would make our country “better off.” I wish the conservative politicians who want to squash the Biden plan could see that. Meanwhile, we’ll wait and watch to see what the Supreme Court decides.
Svante Myrick is President of People For the American Way. Previously, he served as executive director of People For and led campaigns focused on transforming public safety, racial equity, voting rights, and empowering young elected officials. Myrick garnered national attention as the youngest-ever mayor in New York State history.