President Joe Biden’s recent cancellation of student debt will provide tangible benefits to millions of borrowers, as will his cancellation of billions owed by students who have been defrauded by their colleges and his move to lower monthly payments for all borrowers.
That’s good news, but it isn’t enough. The system that got us here has not changed.
Millions of students are still borrowing for the upcoming school year; millions more are not enrolling in school because they can’t afford to — or because they don’t want to risk taking on debt. Americans’ confidence in higher education is at an all-time low.
How did we get here? Over the past several decades, the cost of higher education has shifted ever more from a public responsibility to an individual one.
The Pell Grant program — the federal government’s foundational investment in college affordability — hasn’t kept pace with rising costs. At its peak in 1975-76, the maximum Pell award covered more than 75 percent of the total cost of attending a four-year public college. The current maximum award amount covers just 28 percent of that — the lowest share in the program’s history.
State funding for public institutions — which enroll 79 percent of undergraduate students, including 81 percent of Black, Latino and Native American students — has made up a shrinking share of education revenue, with students and families making up the difference.
True, the federal government sent states over $75 billion to keep colleges afloat during the pandemic. But that was a time-limited fix, not a systemic one.
Where do we go from here? . . . Reduce reliance on debt.
Over time, waning public support for students and colleges has meant higher tuition costs, lower instructional spending and cuts in the support services that help students graduate, especially at community colleges and open access public universities.
It has also created a great and growing financial risk for individual students that they won’t complete a degree but will be saddled with debt that is hard to pay off.
Furthermore, open-access public colleges, public HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions all have long-standing resource gaps that have made it harder for racially and economically marginalized students to see a path to graduation day — without also seeing dark clouds of debt on the horizon.
Meanwhile, low-quality for-profit colleges — empowered by the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks — have preyed on millions of students and saddled them with heavy debt and worthless degrees. (Thankfully, President Biden is moving to restore crucial protections for students, including gainful employment regulations.)
So where do we go from here? The fix sounds simple: Reduce reliance on debt. But how?
We need to invest in students and public colleges, and we need to hold colleges accountable for serving their students well.
The president’s recent actions will help atone for decades of misguided policies that expected people with low wealth to take on burdensome debt in order to climb up the economic ladder.
Congress must meet President Biden’s student debt cancellation actions with legislation that invests in public colleges (especially HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions), contains the costs passed on to students and breaks the debt cycle that led to the current crisis. If lawmakers made more and better investments in higher education, any student wanting a degree could enroll in a public college without it becoming a high-stakes financial gamble.
Congress should start by doubling the maximum Pell Grant award and building a new funding partnership with states that would enable any student to attend an open access public college without needing to borrow. And students should be able to trust that federal and state governments will hold colleges accountable for providing students a quality education rather than exploiting them for their financial aid dollars.
To create a more racially equitable society, one where children can be better off than their parents, we need to ensure that every student who wants to pursue college is able to earn a high-quality degree without taking on debt. It is time for policymakers to address the heart of the problem: a debt-financed system. Let’s stop the student debt pile-up and make college truly accessible and affordable for everyone.
Sameer Gadkaree is president of The Institute for College Access & Success.
This story about student debt cancellation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.