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Editorial: Investing in our future

In the days since the Biden administration announced student loan forgiveness for people who make less than $75,000, there has been a lot of discussion, debate and questions. How will we pay for that relief? Does $10,000 go far enough to help folks who are struggling? And why is a college education so expensive in the first place?

Since 1980, the total cost of both four-year public and private college has nearly tripled, even after accounting for inflation, according to a report released by the administration. Federal support has not kept up: Pell Grants once covered nearly 80% of the cost of a four-year public college degree for students from working families, but now only cover a third. That has left many students from low- and middle-income families with no choice but to borrow if they want to get a degree.

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Clearly, a system that both encourages citizens to attain a college degree while also saddling most of them with a lot of debt is not an ideal one. According to a Department of Education analysis, the typical undergraduate student with loans now graduates with nearly $25,000 in debt.

Under the new plan, the Department of Education will provide up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to Pell Grant recipients, and up to $10,000 in debt cancellation to non-Pell Grant recipients. Borrowers are eligible for this relief if their individual income is less than $125,000 ($250,000 for married couples). No high-income individual or high-income household — in the top 5% of incomes — will benefit from this action.

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The most compelling argument in favor of student loan forgiveness is that it unlocks one of the largest generations of workers, providing them employment flexibility to pursue careers rather than paychecks. It also creates a population with, suddenly, personal income to spare, which should help the economy in the short and long terms.

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And while there are reasonable questions to ask about how the loan forgiveness plan will work, what isn’t helpful is the argument that “I had to pay off my student loans, so you do too.”

There has long been tension between our idea of American individualism — that people are independent, self-reliant and responsible for their own happiness — and civic responsibility, which encourages citizens to be dependable, generous, and helpful to others. We see examples of both philosophies in daily life here, an ever-shifting calculus between what we want for ourselves and what we need to do for others.

That tension has played out in dramatic ways in recent years, as we debated wearing masks in public or getting vaccines for Covid or opening shuttered businesses as the pandemic wore on.

But, even in a country as large and diverse as ours, the need to act on behalf of the common good is undeniable. Our society is built on the notion that we must work together so that everyone as a whole can move forward. This is a basic tenet of most sports teams, religions and human cultures throughout history.

The concept rings truer here in Hampton Roads because, as a military hub, we appreciate and accept the idea of sacrifice for a greater good, the idea of trying to make the world better, easier, safer and happier for future generations.

Imagine if the military had the same attitude as those protesting against loan forgiveness. “I had to drive a tank into enemy fire, so you do too.” We couldn’t function as a nation if everyone had a “me-first” attitude. What a selfish and petty way to see the world.

There are still many issues related to the cost of higher education, the millions of dollars of student loan debt that will not be impacted by Biden’s plan and the best way forward. But, for now, we should all be grateful that some of our citizens will have a huge burden lifted from their shoulders.