Get ready for a new battle in America's culture wars: the clash over college loan forgiveness.
It has been widely reported that president Joe Biden may soon make good on his campaign pledge, perhaps by executive action, to reduce college loan debt.
How much debt will be erased, and for whom, remains to be seen, although The Washington Post has reported that the numbers being kicked around in the White House are $10,000 in debt reduction for people making less than $125,000 (or perhaps $150,000) per year.
Meanwhile, some will rightly point out that debt doesn't just vanish. Instead it merely gets transferred, presumably to taxpayers; some of whom have not chosen to attend college (and resent paying the way for others) and others who may have paid off their college loans years ago and must wonder, "Where's my money?"
I'll admit I don't understand the mechanics or scope of such a loan-forgiveness scheme, but I'm quite sure that it will be front and center in the midterm elections. I've already noticed some blue-collar workers on Facebook asking rhetorically if the government is going to pay off the loans on their work trucks now, too.
As a former education reporter, part-time college teacher and father of two sons, ages 15 and 20, I'm feel like I'm in the crossfire of this debate. (Oh, and I also own a pickup truck; so there's that.) Some of my students at UTC work full-time and still are accumulating lots of student-loan debt.
We began saving for our sons' college educations when they were babies, but we've always known that college is expensive and that paying for it would require several income streams: long-term college savings, scholarships, loans, student-work income and real-time assistance from mom and dad.
So far, so good. We are blessed.
Our older son chose an out-of-state, private Christian school, and it has taken all five income sources to pay his bills. He's done his part by earning scholarships and working; this spring/summer he is loading and unloading trucks. He has also taken out some modest student loans, so he has skin in the game. (The payments will be about $200 a month when he graduates.)
Meanwhile his mom and I make tuition payments from his 529 college savings plan and take on extra work sometimes, partly so we can help him with everyday expenses. By the way, our ability to do extra work feels like a blessing, not a burden.
If, by some presidential magic, he were to get some forbearance on government-backed student loans, we wouldn't feel like moochers.
Still, I understand the equity question. Why should less-educated folks pay the bills for college students? Forgotten in the debate is the fact that many already do. Tennessee's education lottery, for example, turns the tax on all those scratch-off games into merit-based college scholarships. The beneficiaries are often students from middle- and upper-middle-class families.
This wealth transfer seems more palatable because it's voluntary — nobody is forced to spend on the lottery. But it still bothers me sometimes to think that the lottery is an invisible tax that falls disproportionately on those with less income to spare.
There's also this. The New York Times reported this week: "About half of Americans do not currently pay federal income taxes because they do not earn enough." So, before you fall too hard for the "pay off my truck" lament, consider that some of these folks may be TINOs, taxpayers in name only.
I came from an era (the 1970s) when it was possible to work your way through school without college savings or parental support. And when I graduated from Middle Tennessee State in 1980, I owed $750 in student loans which I paid back at the rate of $15 a month. But those were the good old days, although my dorm room looked like $20-a-night hotel room.
Part of the problem today is the high cost of higher education. Many colleges today are fancier than the places where we live and work, and that comes at a cost.
Here's a modest idea: Instead of canceling loan debt, why couldn't the government start a gap-year program for high school graduates. If you work for a year after high school — painting school buildings, say, or cutting grass on federal property — you could earn maybe $12 an hour, and, at the end of the year, receive a $10,000 grant that could be used for college, vocational education or to start a business. (And, yes, you could even use the money as a down payment on a work truck.)
The pursuit of happiness means different things to different people. Once we face that fact, some of the class acrimony we feel today might slowly disappear.
Email Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.